August 30, 2016  |  Events & Programs, Tech
The New Virtual Reality: A Tool for Social Change

In 2014 MoMA added Google Cardboard to its design collection. Earlier this year the Department of Film organized Slithering Screens, which highlighted notable projects such as James George’s and Jonathan Minard’s documentary Clouds and Lynette Walworth’s virtual-reality film Collisions (2016). But aside from these forays into virtual reality, not much else has been organized at the Museum (or most other art museums) around the burgeoning technology. Which raises the question: Why talk about VR now?

Daanish Masood presenting his team’s project, BeAnotherLab, on the first night of the program. Photo: Manuel Martagon

With The New York Times handing out free Google Cardboard viewers to its subscribers and Facebook featuring 360-video functions, virtual reality is now more visible to a general audience. And as VR becomes more accessible to both content creators and consumers, activists are also using it to further their socially focused projects.

In a two-part series I recently developed here at MoMA called The New Virtual Reality: Engage, Empathize, and Educate, three creatives presented virtual reality projects they developed to inspire social change and mobilize community action. (See the full audio files below.) Niko Koppel’s project, Crime Scene, focuses on the stories of victims of police brutality because, as he said, “I want everyone to be the stakeholders…with something that I think is a social injustice. I want people to look at the experience and feel more responsible for doing something.” [VR Panel 1, 33:15] The popularity of virtual reality has created momentum outside the tech world, and content creators are using this to their advantage. Panelist Daanish Masood asserted, “I’m not so interested in fetishizing technology, what I’m interested in is using it as a vehicle to mobilize action.” [VR Panel 1, 39:16] The BeAnotherLab project that Masood helped create puts viewers in the body of others to experience being another gender, race, etc. Similarly, Ziv Schneider’s project The Museum of Stolen Art is “a tool for law enforcement” in that it encourages Google Cardboard users to view virtual collections of stolen art, and then go out into the real world to look for them [VR Panel 2, 22:40]. And so, though all three projects take place in virtual reality, they have timely real-world applications and goals propelled by the current popularity of the medium.

Ziv Schneider showing her project, The Museum of Stolen Art, on the second night of the program. Photo: Marily Konstantinopoulou

And it is because of the content that MoMA is now a part of the conversation. It has taken some time for virtual reality to mature, but now that it has overcome its novelty and tendency toward generating pieces that “just look really cool,” projects are emerging that have depth and gravity. As moderator and MoMA curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher put it, “When we invest in a public program, or an exhibition, or a collection item, it’s because of the content of that work and it’s not because of the tool or the technology necessarily…. While it is not possible as a design curator to ignore the tools and technologies that give rise to conversation and debate in the current moment, it really is not so much a case of ‘well, VR may be over in two minutes, so we shouldn’t go down this route.’ I’m totally compelled by the three works that we’ve had…and don’t think we would have had them here if not.” [VR Panel 2, 36:09]

What do you think? Has the time for virtual reality already passed? Will it continue to shape the way stories are told, or could it fall short of the expectations society has for it?

A program attendee trying out the demo of Niko Koppel’s Crime Scene. Photo: Manuel Martagon

This was just one topic that was broached during these panels, along with VR’s potential as an “empathy machine” and as a source for healing. See below for the full audio of both sessions.