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How Virtual Reality Is Used To Help Recognize Unconscious Biases


After George Floyd was murdered last year, colleges and universities across the country are now focusing more attention on fighting racism and on improving equity and diversity. As Megan Schellong of member station WKAR reports, virtual reality is being used to help recognize unconscious biases.

MEGAN SCHELLONG, BYLINE: Ayodele Dare works for Michigan State University in its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office. He's been testing a new virtual reality application called "A Mile In My Shoes." Users can download it for desktop or mobile through the Oculus app. The Oculus app, which works alongside an all-in-one virtual reality headset, includes goggles and controllers.

AYODELE DARE: So you're on - you have the goggles on. You're going through. You're kind of looking around, trying to kind of reassess your location, really.

SCHELLONG: The program allows the user to select a computer-generated character to play as. Those characters reflect students of various backgrounds and identities from which the participant can experience different real-life scenarios that might happen in the classroom. He describes one instance where he tried the simulation as if he were a person using a wheelchair.

DARE: So when I come off the bus and I'm trying to get to class on time, I always have to go all the way around in order to get even into the classroom. And because of that, I'm always late.

SCHELLONG: In the VR simulation, a faculty member comes into the classroom and begins reading a prompt to the user. The professor then needs to make a choice on how to respond to the participant who was late for class.

QUENTIN TYLER: Do you show grace? Do you show a lot of empathy and understanding?

SCHELLONG: That's Quentin Tyler. He is part of the team that's been developing the app for the last two years. The app got its start when Tyler stumbled upon a school exhibit.

TYLER: The School of Planning, Construction and Design was doing an open house. And I came across Dr. Nubani. And she had a virtual reality exhibit.

SCHELLONG: That's Linda Nubani, who teaches at MSU and who started working with Tyler on developing the app.

TYLER: And I was thinking, it would be neat to create an experience for faculty, staff and students, you know, in which they could learn about - and ways to mitigate their own unconscious bias.

SCHELLONG: The goal is to identify ways to make campuses more inclusive. But there are concerns about virtual reality's place in teaching about racism?

COURTNEY COGBURN: Do we need VR to help you understand that racism is not good, (laughter) that it's not a good thing, it doesn't feel good? So to what degree do I need to create an experience to help you see and understand that? And perhaps the more important question would be, why do you need to see it from this particular point of view?

SCHELLONG: That's Courtney Cogburn. She's an associate professor at Columbia University's School of Social Work. Cogburn is the creator of the virtual reality experience the "1000 Cut Journey," where viewers are put in the body of a Black child experiencing racism through adolescence. The experience uses virtual reality headsets and is compatible with gaming computers that can run larger downloads. Cogburn says virtual reality can be a helpful tool for creating conversations about racism. But those pushing for change need to also consider its shortcomings.

COGBURN: There's no VR experience I could create for someone where they could really have empathy for being a Black man in the United States. There's no VR experience that's really going to do that for you.

SCHELLONG: While it's being tweaked, Ayodele Dare hopes the app will lead to changes on campus for underrepresented students. It will be introduced across college departments this year, with hopes of it being widely adopted in the near future at other universities.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Schellong.


Megan Schellong

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