Virtual reality, augmented reality – these are terms we are slowly integrating into our perceptions of modern day visualization. Ryot – a virtual reality start-up – aims to turn virtual reality experiences into a modern day form of news coverage. In, “One Startup’s Quest to Save Refugees With Virtual Reality,” Abe Streep provides a first hand account of his experience through Ryot’s ideation process, while critiquing their methodology as a company.
There are several noteworthy aspects of the flow and structure of Streep’s article. Many Wired articles follows a similar simplicity, color scheme and fade-in of images, but Streep uses the timing of his images to make a clear statement. For example, he shapes the readers understanding and judgment through his words before introducing a visual. Ryot’s virtual reality experiences rely solely on visuals to influence the viewer; it “contains little context or analysis or story” (Ryot 2016). Streep intentionally has the reader understand the context of an image before it appears, therefore directly challenging Ryot’s technique. Another claim made by Ryot is the emotional appeal virtual reality can stimulate in comparison to any other form of multimedia. Streep, on the other hand, is emphasizing that virtual reality is not the only form of multimedia that can elicit emotions by using striking images to play the role virtual reality would potentially play in ”new media” news of today.
By directly contradicting Ryot, Streep undermines the start-ups idealistic intentions to revolutionize the news and aid industry – this parallels the author’s tone throughout the article, which is often skeptical of the start-ups purpose.
Streep’s skepticism follows Ryot from its foundational values to minute details of its office space. For example, their workplace contains “road signs from around the world” and the “long-haired guy rid[ing] on a hoverboard” (Streep 2016). In setting up this juxtaposition between the workplace and the companies’ goals, it seems ridiculous that Ryot can tackle the scale the news and aid industry to the extent they aspire to.
By the end of the article, we understand exactly how Ryot operates through Streep’s critical lens. They document the world’s largest crises, traveling from place to place with ridiculously expensive filming equipment to provide the public with empathy eliciting three-dimensional content. What about the authenticity of Ryot employees themselves? Does traveling to a country make that experience authentic? Ryot knows just as little about the context of the disaster zones they travel to as their viewers. This cannot be described as a realistic portrayal, when Ryot has no attachment or loyalty to the people they are filming.
The idealism Darg treats his company with can be seen in his commentary on the solar lantern donation work conducted by Operation Blessing. Streep questions the actual importance of the solar lantern donations, which seems to allow the volunteers to “feel like Santa,” more than contributing any useful aid. Darg does not question this, instead evaluating the aid workers intentions as “pure” (Streep 2016). Pure intentions do not validate the usefulness of work. Here also parallels a key issue with many Western based aid companies. By failing to understand the context of the country they enter, they fail to provide necessary resources, just as Ryot fails to depict the disaster zones they film in a way that matters to the people who live there. Their film lens is not objective whatsoever, and removing the voice from the people they film creates a virtual reality experience that is controlled completely by that western lens.
The virtual reality experience has something – shock value. It uses the façade of reality, forgetting that at the end of the day it is virtual reality. Similarly, the problem with news reporters, Ryot and aid workers lie in the fact that they can transport themselves out of the disaster zone at any minute. Just as the photographer commented with “a little too much zeal” on a riot that occurred, it is because he has the ability to leave at any time – this is simply a thrilling and temporary experience, comparable to that of a video game or “disaster porn” (Streep 2016). The physicality of his experience is destroyed by its temporality. This privilege is only afforded to these reporters, not the local people who are manipulated as actors cast in the film of their own life.
And what purpose is virtual reality trying to play? Specifically with Ryot, what are they trying to achieve with the potential success of VR, “the privileged regularly transport themselves to disaster zones […] we might feel compelled to ameliorate our virtually induced guilt by donating to aid groups, some of which are deserving and some of which are not” (Streep 2016). This point really is important to consider. If the end goal here is to provide money through VR for the aid industry, the first question we should be considering is which organizations are chosen to provide funding to? How are their practices evaluated? The main fear in having Ryot choose organizations to fund is the innovation-centered model that they will attract. Sometimes innovation in the aid industry is less useful then simple solutions that are sustainable – virtual reality is not simple or sustainable and focuses on a high-tech approach.
Virtual reality could have a profound impact on society. But maybe some things should only be experienced as reality. Desensitization is a major potential risk of the overuse of virtual reality. Disaster tourism and virtual reality disaster video games are two serious implications that are already finding their way into modern society. While we cannot understand fully the health implications of virtual reality saturation in media, it is clear that many ethical concerns surrounding the application of virtual reality in society will surface.