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Why VR is suitable for diversity training?

Why the medium of VR can facilitate diversity in various environments. Short summary about its use in various fields.

  1. What do we call VR today?

The promising character of virtual reality devices and recent advancements in VR technology have made VR productions more attractive for scholars. With its promise to fully immerse their consumers, VR productions have been the subject of many speculative theoretical writings that relate them to André Bazin’s concept of total cinema (Bornkamm, Köhler & Petraitis, 2018), and also data-oriented approaches that study the perceptual and representational aspects of virtual reality. According to Biocca and Delaney (1995), VR can be defined as “the sum of the hardware and software systems that seek to perfect an all-inclusive, sensory illusion of being present in another environment.” VR’s core characteristics are immersion, presence and interactivity (Walsh & Pawlowski, 2002), and these lead us back to the grounding features of the technology that are, according to Frederick Brooks (1999), three real features: 

1. real-time rendering with viewpoint changes brought about by the user moving her head,

2. real space, namely concrete or abstract 3D virtual environments, and

3. real interaction, that is, direct manipulation of virtual objects.

These features can enable the user to experience new illusory encounters such as having the sense of place illusion, where the user experiences the virtual reality space as a real space. In media psychology, “spatial presence” is a key term to express the sense of presence, of the sense of being there, and this feature has two aspects (Hameed & Perkis, 2018): 

  1. A simulated spatial environment in which the user feels located;
  2. For that mediated environment to offer perceivable option for activity

The intensity of the place illusion is correlated with the intensity of the plausibility illusion, that is, the illusion that the depicted scenario is actually occurring (Slater, 2009). This sense can occur even though the is not transparent yet, and the experiencer is aware that the given production is a simulation (Steinicke, 2016).


1.2. VR and the Sense of Embodiment

The combination of the two aforementioned aspects can result in physical reactions by the experiencer. Having the illusion of being at a virtual spot and the illusion of having agency in a virtual event exposes the subject (or the protagonist) to new viewpoints and perspectives. While 360° videos (watched on VR headsets) cannot enable the experiencer to have the feeling of embodiment in the presented environment, interactive, game engine-based VR productions can enable such an experience. 

“Embodiment” is a term that creates much confusion, therefore Kilteni, Groten and Slater (2012) developed a working definition in order to address the ambiguity. This has three components: Sense of self-location, sense of agency and the sense of body ownership. The experiencer encountering a VR production that offers this sense of embodiment by being present allows the user to more deeply understand perspectives other than their own (De la Peña et al., 2010). Although VR is sometimes called “the empathy machine” and many VR creators do aim to increase empathy, the type and direction of empathy can be questionable. 

All these features of VR that have a direct effect on perception and bodily phenomenology puts the experiencers in a very delicate situation, therefore ethical considerations need to be addressed.   


1.3. VR productions and the ethical aspects of their design

In 2016, Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger (2016) published one of the first articles on VR ethics, where they brought up the topic of a possible code of conduct for good scientific practices in the field of VR and for consumers that use VR technologies. They emphasize that the main motivation behind their investigation is VR’s ability to enable the illusion of embodiment. Madary and Metzinger argue that this can have a manipulative effect on deep behavior, especially if “illusions of embodiment are misused,” and pose general questions in research ethics such as the limitations of the code of conduct for research and the limits of the overall experimental environments. They also point at the importance of informing the users about the lasting psychological effects of VR and “the possibility of using results of VR research for malicious purposes.” Madary and Metzinger emphasize that those who excessively use VR can develop a condition where they “experience the real world and their real bodies as unreal, effectively shifting their sense of reality exclusively to the virtual environment.”


1.4. Immersive VR journalistic applications and their ethical context

With the proliferation of immersive journalism, especially in the case of documentary VR productions, the question of empathy and its use by creators of VR has become more important. In the case of journalistic VR productions, the creators should contextualize their work as a design representation of a “unique aspect of their reality,” where the user’s empathy depends on a designed representation which may result in an experience with a limited basis in lived reality (Fisher, 2017). Fisher brings up two types of empathy, emotional and rational (cognitive). One way VR creators can instill the latter type of empathy in the users is by using mechanisms of role playing techniques, and put the experiencer into a situation of embodied movement and action, and present the participants with moral choices so they can form perspectives and develop unique and synthesized value systems (Lean et al., 2006).


1.5 Equity and Inclusions in AR/VR applications and for the users

According to the report series issued by Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), there are three key areas where AR/VR can be used to support broader equity and inclusion: 1) AR/VR’s potential as an “empathy tool” can be effectuated; 2) AR/VR’s capacities can be adaptable to meet the needs of the users with disabilities; and 3) AR/VR can mitigate the barriers caused by distance in order to create stronger communities and interpersonal relationships. The report also identifies application areas: AR/VR can improve workplace engagement in Diversity and reduce harms from bias, immersive experiences can be used for assistive technologies and they can even combat social isolation (Dick, 2021a).

Interactive interfaces and video games can instill a certain feeling of empathy if they emulate the effect of a certain state, e.g. disability (Hailpern et al., 2011). Even if simulations can lead to empathic concern, these can also reinforce stereotypes by disseminating misinformation (Silverman, Gwinn &Van Boven, 2015). It is important to mention that perspective taking in VR has a better effect than imagination in the context of certain stereotypes (Oh et al., 2016), but neither of them can mitigate these stereotypes. Also, virtual environments where lighter-skinned participants embodied darker-skinned avatars and could interact by embodying them can reduce implicit bias (Peck et al., 2013). Although these seem to be promising experiments, they were conducted on a small sample, on groups which are usually represented in psychological VR studies (university students) and relied on self-report data, and so they might be not representative. Decrease in bias was dependent on the social situation that was depicted, and this factor can even lead to increased implicit bias (Banakou et al., 2020). On the other hand, Herrera et. al.’s study (2018) shows that experiments of perspective taking in VR has a longer-lasting effect (longer than 8 week) compared to narrative perspective taking, especially if the participants had a task in the virtual environment, but this does not necessary manifest in donating or signing petitions.

Intergroup contact, or encounters between people of different social groups, is arguably an effective antidote to prejudice and interracial conflict (Paluck et al., 2019) as these contacts can improve interracial contact experiences. When designing these experiences, the designers should still reflect on their own standpoint but also on what effect the VR can have on the users (in order to not to create stressful situations). 

In general, in several of their reports ITIF suggest that in order to foster equity and inclusion in AR/VR experiences, governments should establish clear policies and standards (Dick, 2021b) that touch upon the following: user privacy, bystander privacy, accessible design and non-technical barriers. (Dick, 2021c) 



Banakou, D. et al. (2020). “Virtual Body Ownership and its Consequences for Implicit Racial Bias are Dependent on Social Context.” Royal Society Open Science, 7(12).

Biocca, F. & Delaney, B. (1995). “Immersive virtual reality technology.” In F. Biocca & B. Delaney (Eds.) Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality (pp. 57–124). Routledge.

Bornkamm, H., Köhler, K. & Petraitis, M. (2018). “Virtual and augmented realities – a conversation with William Uricchio.” Cinema, 63, 38–49.

Brooks, F. P. (1999). “What's real about virtual reality?” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications, 19, 16–27.

De la Peña, N. et al. (2010). “Immersive journalism: immersive virtual reality for the first-person experience of news.” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 19(4), 291–301.

Dick, E. (2021a). “Current and Potential Uses of AR/VR for Equity and Inclusion.” IFTF Report.

Dick, E. (2021b). “Principles and Policies to Unlock the Potential of AR/VR for Equity and Inclusion.” IFTF Report.

Dick, E. (2021c). “Risks and Challenges for Inclusive and Equitable Immersive Experiences.” IFTF Report.

Fisher, J. A. (2017). “Empathic actualities: toward a taxonomy of empathy in virtual reality.” In N. Nunes, I. Oakley and V. Nisi (Eds.) International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling (pp. 233–244). Springer.

Hailpern, J. et al. (2011). “ACES: promoting empathy towards aphasia through language distortion emulation software.” In D. Tan et al. (Eds.) Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 609–618). ACM.

Hameed, A. & Perkis, A. (2018). “Spatial Storytelling: Finding Interdisciplinary Immersion.” In R. Rouse, H. Koenitz and M. Haahr (Eds.) Interactive Storytelling. ICIDS 2018. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 11318. Springer.

Herrera, F. et al. (2018). “Building long-term empathy: A large-scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective-taking.” PLoS ONE, 13(10).

Kilteni, K., Groten, R. & Slater, M. (2012). “The Sense of Embodiment in Virtual Reality.” Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 21(4), 373–387.

Lean, J. et al. (2006). “Simulations and games: Use and barriers in higher education.” Active Learning in Higher Education, 7(3), 227–242.

Madary, M. & Metzinger, T. K. (2016). “Recommendations for good scientific practice and the consumers of VR-technology.” Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 3(3).

Oh, S. Y. et al. (2016). “Virtually old: Embodied perspective taking and the reduction of ageism under threat.” Computers in Human Behavior, 60, 398–410.

Paluck, E.L., Green S.A. & Green, D.P. (2019). “The contact hypothesis re-evaluated.” Behavioural Public Policy, 3(2), 129-158.

Peck, T. C. et al. (2013). “Putting yourself in the skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias.” Consciousness and Cognition, 22(3), 779–87.

Silverman, A.M., Gwinn, J. D. & Van Boven, L. (2015). “Stumbling in their shoes: Disability simulations reduce judged capabilities of disabled people.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(4), 464–71.

Slater, M.(2009). “Place illusion and plausibility can lead to realistic behaviour in immersive virtual environments.” Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 364(1535), 3549–3557.

Steinicke, F. (2016). Being Really Virtual. Springer.

Walsh, K. R. & Pawlowski, S. D. (2002). “Virtual reality: A technology in need of IS research.”  Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 8(1), 20.

Ágnes Karolina Bakk

Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design’s Innovation Center

Ágnes Karolina Bakk (1986), narrative designer, PhD-researcher at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design’s Innovation Center. In her research she is focusing on analogue and digital storytelling, the science of magic, the concept of immersion as well as interaction (even between humans and non-humans). She is the founder of the immersive storytelling conference entitled Zip-Scene (, that took place for the third time in 2021. She is the cofounder of Random Error Studio, a lab that supports various VR productions and is currently the curator of Vektor VR section. She is teaching escape room design, immersive&VR- storytelling and speculative design at MOME and presented her research on immersive theatre and VR at various conferences and platforms from Moscow (CILECT, 2019) to Montreal (SQUET, 2019) as well as at festivals such as DokLeipzig (2020). Her research is published international scientific journals and edited volumes and she is currently involved in several video game productions as well as in artistic VR creation.