Could AR and VR Support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and even Reduce Discrimination?

via Tim Marler

The Advantages

Discrimination often results from a lack of exposure or understanding.  Thus, interacting with different types of people, experiencing different perspectives, appreciating different views can be a cure.  To some extent, AR/VR can offer this cure.  In the same way that travel can foster an appreciation for new cultures, customs, and values, AR/VR can easily expose users to new and unfamiliar environments for a relatively low cost.  Furthermore, it can do so with substantially increased frequency and variation.

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), VR can do more than just provide the user with a view into new ideas and environments.  It can allow users to see the world through a new pair of eyes; it can help provide empathy.  There are many examples where AR/VR allows one to see a situation through the eyes of a different avatar, for example, as someone with autism or someone in hospice care.  By assuming a new avatar in a new environment, this kind of application can allow users to experience and appreciate discrimination they may not otherwise encounter.

The Risks

However, there is no magic key that opens all doors.  Especially with topics as complex as DEI and ethics, AR/VR must be applied carefully and thoughtfully, not recklessly.  In fact, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) recently provided a series of reports that highlight not only the advantages of AR/VR in this space, but also the potential risks.

For example, one report notes that “…particularly in marginalized or under-served communities, users may face risks and challenges that discourage or preclude them from using AR/VR technologies.”  The same report goes on to say, “Offline biases can manifest in virtual spaces, such as stereotypes based on race or gender.  Information gathered or inferred about a user in AR/VR also could reveal sensitive personal information that puts them at risk of discrimination.”  Thus, as is often the case with emerging technologies, there are many potential benefits, but proper application is critical.

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