The power of split-sphere 360 VR in advancing gender equality

[This story examines a recent study of the potential of a film that provides both male and female perspectives in an unusual split-sphere 360° video format to create empathy and attitude change. The story is from Medium, where the original includes three different images. It’s worth looking at the study itself (via Dropbox), in which presence and other aspects of the technology and experience are considered. A related recent story worth a look is “Walking in another’s virtual shoes: Do 360-degree video news stories generate empathy in viewers?“ in Columbia Journalism Review. –Matthew]

[Image: Source: UTURN creator Nathalie Mathe]

The power of virtual reality in advancing gender equality

Tanja Aitamurto
May 3, 2018

As the #metoo movement continues unveiling stories of gender discrimination, it is increasingly important to develop solutions to address the problem. To create a more equal society, we need to better understand each other’s perspectives and realities. For that, we need a myriad of tools and methods. Emerging technologies could and should be harnessed more efficiently for advancing gender equality.

One promising emerging technology is virtual reality (VR), and particularly its more recent form called cinematic virtual reality (CVR). CVR is based on photorealistic documentary footage captured with 360° cameras. In CVR, viewers can choose the field of view in the 360° sphere by turning their heads in a head-mounted display.

Research dating back decades shows that traditional, game-engine-based VR increases viewers’ empathy and helps them learn. CVR provides a new, potentially powerful tool for affecting people’s emotions and attitudes. But the effects of CVR on human behavior and attitudes remain largely unknown. How could we harness the affordances in CVR to advance gender equality and understand others’ perspectives?

One fascinating approach is to split the 360° view in half and let one half represent a woman’s perspective and the other a half man’s perspective. The result is a split-sphere 360° video showing two perspectives of a situation. Viewers can switch perspectives freely by rotating their head in a head-mounted display.

The results of a study, conducted at Stanford University, show that the experience of watching the split-sphere 360° video increased the viewers’ feeling of personal responsibility for advancing gender equality in the workplace when the viewers identified themselves with the film’s female character. The results showed a statistically significant difference between this group and the control group. The stronger the feeling of responsibility for changing existing biases, the more likely we may be to mitigate gender-biased behavior in everyday life.

The study was conducted for a research paper, which was presented last week at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI), a premier conference for human–computer interaction in computer science. The paper was published in the Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, and is accessible at the ACM Digital Library and here.

The award-winning film used in the study is called Uturn, produced by NativeVR. The film tells a story about a crisis in a technology start-up in San Francisco. The story is a sadly familiar one: A female engineer fixes an issue but doesn’t get credit for her work. Neither does she get support for her work from her male-dominated team.

The viewers could switch sides freely during the 10-minute video. The video was filmed from a first-person perspective: On the woman’s side, the viewer watches the video as if inhabiting a woman’s body, and on the man’s side, a man’s body. Learn more about the innovative Uturn film here.

The study showed that watching the split-sphere 360° video provided the viewers an entrance to a perspective that is normally inaccessible. The viewers were curious about the other gender’s perspective. As a female viewer said after seeing the film, “I was more interested in the male’s side because it is not a perspective that I get to see or experience.”

The female participants said that experiencing the male perspective helped them understand the reality of that perspective better. Several male participants in the study, in turn, were astonished about the continual, subtle dismissal of the female lead character in the story. They hadn’t experienced such a suppressive situation before.

The findings of the study suggest that a split-sphere 360° video has the potential to affect viewers’ feelings of their own responsibility for advancing gender equality. Apart from all genders, there is a number of other “others” in whose shoes we could benefit from walking: other religions, cultures, and ages. Developing the split-sphere 360° concept further could contribute to harnessing the power of 360° videos to help people understand other perspectives.

However, the experience of watching a film, whether a 360° or a traditional video, is only a small part of societal change. We should continue practicing understanding other perspectives using multiple methods and tools throughout our lives. When certain conditions are met, technologies can contribute to positive progress, but they cannot do it all, and they cannot do it alone. We humans have the responsibility to transform our society into a more equal and inclusive one.


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