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A Thousand Cuts: Virtual Reality and Inclusion

Image: Sammy Elfatrany

By Catherine McGregor

“What would it take for you to understand that racism is more complex than being called a name or even violence at the hands of police?

What would it take for you to accept that we still live in a world where the color of someone’s skin can get them killed, passed over for a job, denied a loan, denied housing, denied a fair shot?

What would it take for the reports of black bodies being gunned down by police to register as a pattern of racism, not merely insubordination or criminality?

What would it take for the outcries of racial injustice to register not as a sensitivity or a card to be played but as an unacceptable social reality?

What would it take for the data you see and that you say you “get”; what would it take for you to feel the reality behind that data?

What would it take for you not just to feel bad and to empathise but to act and think differently?”

Dr Courtney D. Cogburn ( TEDX RVA, 2017)

In the second of our series on the positive impact and potential future positive impact of technology, we take a deep dive into virtual reality through examining an ongoing project which aims to use VR technology to help foster greater understanding of the impact of the experience of racism. We spoke to the architects of the project Dr CourtneyD. Cogburn of Columbia University and Professor Jeremy Bailenson of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab to get behind the platitudes.

In Someone Else’s Shoes

While there’s obviously been great interest and take up of VR technology in the worlds of pornography and gaming (neither of which are generally very inclusive) the fact that the technology and the industry is still so nascent does mean its potential is still wide open.

The fact that VR literally can allow you to walk in somebody else’s shoes means it has huge potential to encourage empathy and to be used very powerfully in training situations for inclusion.

The quest for a fully sensory experience outside of one’s own reality has a long genesis and could encompass a wide range of art forms and experiences. What is traditionally understood as the beginning of today’s virtual reality journey happened in 1987. Jaron Larnier founded the Visual Programming Lab (VPL), and either coined or popularized the term “virtual reality”. VPL developed a range of virtual reality gear including head-mounted goggles and gloves. The haptic experience (being able to touch and pick things up) of the new technology started to increase its potential and also the media’s interest in it. During the 1990’s, films such as The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix trilogies explored the concepts of virtual reality but real-life uptake was still some way off. Both Sega and Nintendo introduced VR gaming headsets that were flops.

During the 21st century VR has had an upturn, partly due to greater technological capacity and the development of smartphones and tablets. Recent years have seen the movement of many of the technological giants such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook invest and research into the field.

Empathy Machine

The immersive aspect of VR inevitably can lead to dangers which those working and researching in this field have highlighted. Exposure to violent video games has been shown to increase violent impulses in users and this is likely to be heightened in the use of immersive technology like VR. There’s also the danger of reality drift which can occur through lengthened exposure to VR. Users become disorientated as to what is real and what isn’t. I will return to consider the implications of this for inclusion.

In 2015 Chris Milk created a VR documentary entitled Clouds Over Sidra. In this film, viewers get to experience life in the Za’atari refuge camp in Jordan, home to over 80,000 displaced Syrian refuges. The film is narrated by Sidra, an eight year old girl. It does not show anything highly dramatic, rather the realities of day-to day-life in the camp. Describing seeing this at the Tribeca Film Festival Jeremy Bailensen, head of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, in his forthcoming book ‘Experience on Demand’ describes how the experience does not employ any of the traditional tools used by film-makers to heighten empathy and engagement but rather simply uses the experience of having walked in the shoes of the refugees.

Chris Milk has spoken of his film, which is only eight and half minutes long, as being able to truly connect the experiences of the refugees to those who can help change that reality. Chris has deemed VR ‘the ultimate empathy machine’ and has spoken of the fact that it can connect people to other people in a way no other media can; and to that end he believes that it can change the world. Indeed Clouds Over Sidra was created with the help of the United Nations and Samsung and the UN has reported that seeing it doubles the amount of people who donate to refugees.

Experiences like this mirror Jeremy Bailenson’s own work in VR, which over the last twenty years has broadened the experience of walking in another’s shoes - or even hooves. In his book ‘Experience on Demand’ Jeremy describes the project spearheaded by a student of his, Joshua Bostick, which focused on giving participants the same experience as cows who were being reared for meat consumption. In this study volunteers would crawl on all fours, wearing a special vest which allowed them to some extent to mirror the gait of a cow. Participants saw the cow they were controlling via a head-mounted monitor but could also ‘feel’ how the cow felt, by seeing their cow avatar get prodded, simultaneously getting prodded in the side themselves and also feel intense sound vibrations through the floor to mimic the sensation of getting an electric shock.

While running the VR experience, Jeremy and his researchers also ran a control group where participants saw video of cows going through the experiences in the VR simulation but without experiencing the sensations themselves.At the end of the experiments, those who had been through the VR simulation reported much greater empathy with the cows. In this case, the aims of Jeremy Bailenson and Bostick’s study was not to promote whole-scale veganism but to make participants think about their consumption of meat.

In recent years the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab has worked on a range of projects which explore using VR to enhance empathy. These have included projects where participants experience ageing and homelessness. The lab also works with different organisations, using VR experience in training to increase empathy which certainly seems to have tangible effects in the real world. Jeremy explained:

“Overall we are very pleased with the level of user engagement and initial outcomes of using VR for empathy-related training within actual organizations. Fidelity saw a ten percent improvement in customer satisfaction scores after employing VR for empathy training, using VR to help employees form a better understanding of their customers. Recent work with Stanford Children's Hospital points to VR helping doctors trained using a perspective-taking simulation to feel more prepared to have tough conversations with patients. VR helps people to better manage their biases, by giving them practice on how to behave in intense situations which are rare but high impact in the real world.”

But how easy is it to actually measure the effectiveness of VR experiences? It’s all about measuring behavior, according to Jeremy. “When one is trying to change “entrenched” behaviours - ones that are built up over decades and hard to change - it is not enough to use questionnaires. Therefore, we look at how people actually behave later on. For example, in a large-scale, longitudinal study where thousands of people have “Become Homeless” in VR, our measure for effectiveness is whether or not they will actually sign a real petition that will increase their personal taxes to support affordable housing.”

What’s interesting though is that the work that Jeremy and his researchers have been doing might suggest that VR can help create more empathetic responses in those who might traditionally not be as able to show empathy.

“We have published a number of papers now that demonstrate VR empathy-training works best for people who have a hard time, in general, at taking the perspectives of others, for example, the first study in this paper: The “Inter-Reactivity Index” measures the ability for people to engage in perspective taking as an individual difference, and VR has shown uniquely effective for those who score low on this measure.”

It might then also prove very useful in training for diversity and inclusion, as a key aspect of inclusivity is often being able to understand the perspectives of others.

In recent years the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab has worked to confront the issues of systematic racism through their ongoing work with Professor Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University in the 1000 Cut Journey project.

1000 Cut Journey

This project aims to create an immersive experience of racism from the perspective of a Black male, allowing participants to become Michael Sterling who encounters racism as a young child, an adolescent, and an adult. The genesis of the project is not just to stimulate empathy but to help others understand the social realities of racism, which is critical to promote effective and collective social action. Courtney Cogburn explains what led to the project:

“We communicate racism and racial inequality through language and symbolism- such as through media representations that have an impact on health; it led me to think about how to leverage the media and engage a more complex narrative around racism. That eventually led me to VR - drawing on the adage of walking in someone else’s shoes. My feeling was that many White people do not really understand racism or its impact: could I create something that gives them some first-hand insight into experiences of racism? Could we improve people’s competence around racial inequality? My position is that emotional empathy is insufficient, we need people to act and think differently but what experience could we create that could push people to think in a different way?”

The target audience for 1000 Cut Journey is self-identified White liberals who are most likely to espouse beliefs of racial equality but may lack understanding of what that really means in terms of lived experiences of racism. There is an increasing body of research which suggests that true systemic change cannot be achieved unless the real pain of oppression is addressed, not just in its extreme forms but its everyday forms. It’s those ideas that informed Remi Eddo Lodge’s Why I am No Longer Talking to White People About Race, where Eddo Lodge suggests that too often the burden of eliminating racism is falling to Black people and that what is needed is greater consciousness and action from white people. It’s this consciousness and action that 1000 Cut Journey seeks to stimulate.

The experience of the 1000 Cut Journey makes the participants experience three moments in the life of Michael Sterling a black man, as a young child in a classroom, as an adolescent in an NYC neighbourhood and then as young adult in a professional work environment. I asked Courtney why she chose the experiences of a Black man over a Black woman?

“At the moment, I think that our public discourse is heavily focused on Black men and thus it was a salient point to begin engagement. I have written about and am personally quite aware, however, of the ways in which Black women are made invisible in this discourse. Subconsciously I think that, for me, creating an experience about a Black woman would be more personal, complex and challenging. Trying to talk about a more deeply personal experience and the intersection of sexism and racism would be more complicated for me but it is definitely something I hope to explore in the future.”

For Courtney, the key aspect of the experience is the accumulating effect of the different experiences throughout various phases of the life cycle. “The cumulative effect is important, we want participants to go through the three experiences. We wanted to give people the sense that it’s not just one time encounter and also that it starts very young. Similarly that it’s not just school or work but racism permeates every space and facet of society.”

This amalgamation of experiences is derived from a range of narratives shared with her research team in the School of Social Work at Columbia University and also from empirical data drawn from multiple disciplines.

In the first segment of 1000 Cut Journey you are the young child Michael who is singled out and put on a ‘time out’ by his teacher for playing more roughly than his non-black peers, even though this isn’t the case.The racism is arguably more subtle and certainly less dramatic than the second segment but demonstrates how the narrative of the ‘violent black male’ starts incredibly young and how this trope is being imposed unfairly on Michael.

In the second segment you are a teenage Michael going out to play basketball with a friend; reports come in of police searching for a young black man who is implicated in a crime. The suspect is wearing something similar to you and your mother urges you to change. The segment concludes with you (the user) being stopped and searched by the police, including being forced onto your knees with your hands in the air.

In the final segment you’re a 30 year-old Michael at a job interview. You’re waiting with aWhite candidate to be called in. The interviewer, ignoring you, walks over to the White candidate and cheerfully states “You must be our applicant from Yale.” But he’s not, Michael (you) is the candidate from Yale; the receptionist points out his mistake and you are ushered in for interview, but you don’t get the job.

The experience premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. After experiencing it participants were asked to write their responses on a wall.

Responses were expressed differently but generally focussed on the fact that it’s an incredibly powerful experience for the participants. In a number of cases the responses stated that this behaviour is unacceptable and that something has to change.

These reactions to the experience heartened Courtney. “Based on the reactions throughout the festival I became more encouraged that we were doing something meaningful and impactful. All of the comments were focused on ideas like, ‘I thought I understood this, but I didn’t’, and that was really important to us, as were the delegates’ emotional responses - people were upset and crying; really churned up.”

Jeremy Bailenson also sees the potential for greater application after the experience of premiering the piece at Tribeca. “Since then, we have been in conversations with dozens of organizations to install it as a part of their diversity and inclusion training. The idea is not to replace their existing curriculum, but instead to use it to augment the substantive information with an intense experience, one that is only possible in VR.”

The Limits of the Virtual

One caveat that might be raised by the use of VR in training for inclusion is that it’s not a magic bullet despite its effect often being very potent and it cannot replace the need for other aspects of training; a point highlighted by both Courtney and Jeremy in their conversations with me. Uncontrolled and unlimited access to VR experiences could lead to ‘reality drift’; in inclusion terms, this could potentially lead to non- diverse participants imagining their diversity VR experience was the real thing and that they themselves were diverse. Without thoughtful application this could become an aspect of diversity tourism.

But the immediacy of walking in someone else’s shoes is certainly a truly valuable part of training. Would the white manager in the third segment of 1000 Cuts Journey blithely assume a black candidate couldn’t be the Yale candidate if he had been in Michael’s shoes? Hopefully the emotional memory of that moment would stop future assumptions in their tracks.

1000 Cut Journey is a project which is still on-going and Courtney and Jeremy and their teams are looking at further ways to apply this in real life. If your organisation would like to find out more please email either Courtney at

Or Jeremy at

Experiencing the 1000 Cut Journey

I feel like a little child with a big world pitted against me.

I want to curl up and just cry.

I realise I am crying uncontrollably. At that point the feeling of the VR headset feels like some sort of shield or protection.

These are my immediate reactions at taking part in the 1000 Cut Journey developed by Professor Jeremy Bailenson and Dr Courtney D. Cogburn. I had wanted to take part in the experience for writing this article but had worried that knowing what it was through research for this article might lessen its effects. I was wrong.

During the first segment when Michael is a child in kindergarten and wrongly accused of playing roughly, I just felt confused. But during segments two and three, when Michael is stopped by the police as an adolescent and then faces discrimination in the workplace as an adult, I felt a very powerful throwback to feelings of childhood - feeling completely vulnerable, powerless, feeling threatened and feeling unfairly treated, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I was also amazed at how attached I got to Michael‘s body in a short space of time. It felt quite sad to say goodbye to my ‘Michael self’, maybe because of what we had experienced together.

Did it change my perspective? Well I am certainly predisposed to be empathetic but the VR experience takes this to another level. Afterwards I retreated to a nearby coffee shop to reflect. While there I read a report in The Guardian about the British rapper, Giggs, criticising The Sun newspaper for their coverage of knife crime in London. It referenced an earlier Instagram comment from Giggs, which took to task Piers Morgan for his remarks on stop and search.

“Have you yourself ever experienced the traumas or violations, and a lot of the time abuse of power of ‘being stopped and search because you look like …”

Whilst I previously would have sympathised with this remark, it would have been merely theoretical. I did feel a subtle but important shift in perspective coming off of my virtual experience as Michael being stopped and searched. I could tap into how it felt…

(This article was originally Published in the Fall 2018 issue of Diversity & The Bar the magazine of the Minority Corporate Council Association.


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