“Progress isn’t guaranteed. It’s not inevitable. It’s something that has to be fought for.” —President Obama
On a chilly DC December day, a ragtag crowd of developers, researchers, artists and producers shuffled through secret service and made their way to the Indian Treaty Room to attend the first VR for Social Change Summit at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). They had one thing in common; all were specifically working to leverage VR and AR to advance social change.
The event was the definition of last minute, nearly an after-thought. At OSTP we were in the final sprint before handing over the keys to the next Administration, and there was so much left to do. And yet, having worked with some amazing colleagues across the federal government just beginning to tap into the potential of the most recent VR/AR technologies we spotted an opportunity to throw one more item on the list.
There is obvious commercial opportunity when a new industry emerges, but there is also opportunity to advance social change — opportunity to try solving old problems in new ways because tools exist that did not exist before. There is greater possibility space.
So with a month to plan (typical), we called up some friends, made some new ones without clearly explaining why (thank you Newseum!!!), and bootstrapped a summit out of thin air (again, typical). It was such an amazingly eclectic group, with people representing social change efforts in education, health, social science, journalism, countering stereotypes, telling untold stories, and well beyond. From that gathering, a more fully-fledged VR for Change Summit emerged as part of the Games for Change Festival at Parsons School of Design this past August, fanning some air on an initial spark.
Now we’re gearing up for phase 3 — taking the effort beyond a single event and into the wild.
The XR for Change initiative is a project meant to give a little extra intentionality to an industry that is still young with its whole life ahead of it. XR – the amalgamation of reality-altering tech that includes VR, AR, MR, and whatever anyone else concocts next, represents so much more than the headsets and SDKs and haptics and volumetric captures that constitute it. XR is a new toolbox for society.
The toolbox is enabling new ways to shine a light on reproductive rights, the struggle of refugees, and the untold stories of women in science. It’s giving us a portal to access history that must not be lost, a portal to hear the harrowing accounts of sexual assault, and a portal directly to each-other. It’s allowing artists to share the trials of losing a loved one to cancer or trying to save innocent lives in a war zone, scientists new ways to tackle brain science, and educators new ways to teach chemistry. It’s helping more of us understand the daily lives of those with disabilities, helping more of us rethink body image, even helping more of us reflect deeply on our busy, tech-infused lives in the most wonderfully meta ways. It’s helping children manage pain, helping doctors perform difficult medical procedures, and helping advance research for elderly care. It’s giving young people whole new opportunities.
Many of these projects are represented in the XR for Change initiative.
The technology is young, there is certainly a conversation brimming with opinions about whether consumer-facing XR is just a fad or perhaps “the next computing platform.” And yet, the impact of the XR experiences rattled off above is 100% real authentic social good. Perhaps more pointedly, many of these experiences are why anyone who is NOT in the tech or gaming scene might care about VR at all. And the potential for what can be built next, to do even more good, is vast.
However, as alluded to at the top of this post, “good” is not inevitable and it requires coordinated, dedicated effort. This initiative is about doing that.
We hope you will jump aboard.
- Erik Martin, Chairman, XR for Change Initiative