Virtual Realities: Immersive Documentary Encounters // Project News // Jul 02, 2018.

Virtual Realities at DIS'18

DIS is the annual conference on Designing Interactive Systems, organised by the ACM (Association of Computer Machinery) and SIGCHI (Special Interest Group in Computer Human Interaction). It brings together an international community of researchers, designers and developers (and more) for a programme of activities including workshops, panel discussions, paper presentations and demos.

A Growing Interest in VR at DIS?

For many years, the DIS community has been engaging with some of the same issues and challenges that we are interested in, from the functionality and usability of interactive and immersive technologies, to concepts like embodiment, presence and representation. Ideas around human-computer interaction and ‘technology as experience’, which are central to DIS, have a particular relevance to VR, and DIS publishes prototypes - both real and imaginary - that often suggest future directions for immersive technologies such as VR.

The topic of DIS’18 (June 9th-13th 2018) was ‘diversity’. It posed questions such as, "how is diversity reflected in models of user experience?", "What methods and processes does diversity call for?", "What are the ethical challenges in designing for diversity?". Diversity is a crucial issue for both VR and documentary. The newly-released Oculus Go – at £200 – is significantly cheaper than comparable VR headsets, but it is still a luxury item. Production tools for VR are expensive and/or complicated to use and distribution infrastructure (especially for VR nonfiction) is nascent and fragmented. Can VR extend its reach beyond early-adopters and those who are willing/able to overcome these barriers? Will it connect with a more diverse mainstream audience? DIS might be a good place to look for clues...

While VR has been relatively inconspicuous at DIS in recent years, 2018 has seen a steep increase in papers about VR (from 3 in 2017 to 7 in 2018). There were more papers about VR this year than there were about IoT, for example. Does this suggest a growing interest in VR at DIS?

Papers about VR at DIS’18

There were seven papers about virtual reality at DIS'18, representing a variety of approaches and perspectives, from novel applications of existing VR systems, to new developments in VR technology and more theoretically-informed work. Two papers proposed novel solutions to the key challenge of mobility in VR, using two different techniques - inattentional blindness (Sra et al) and rotational acceleration (Rietzler et al). Others presented examples of VR applications in a Viking-themed museum exhibit (Schofield et al), a co-design platform for ergonomic desks (Lee et al) and a guided meditation exercise (Prpa et al). There was only one paper about social VR: Misha Sra (MIT) presented work that sought to rationalise the different geometries of real-world locations when interactions take place within a co-located virtual space. Finally, combining the ‘experiential’ and the ‘speculative’, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz (University of Southern Califronia) presented work about VR as a context for innovative design fictions.

Some of this work suggests new avenues of technological potential for VR. It also calls for new literacies (beyond those inherited from earlier media) and there is still plenty that we do not understand about the social and cultural barriers to diversity in VR. Techniques such as rotational acceleration and inattentional blindness maintain the 'plausibility' and 'place' illusions, but to what extent do these illusions align with the aim of representing reality in VR? And can we rationalise such manipulations with ‘the ethical charge of the real’?

Click here for a full list of the DIS papers about VR.

‘Manipulating Reality?...’ A Workshop about Developing and Deploying VR in Sensitive Settings

There was also a VR-themed workshop, organised and led by Jenny Waycott from the University of Melbourne (co-organised by researchers from Deakin University, Microsoft Research and KU Leuven). The workshop title was ‘Manipulating Reality? Designing and Deploying Virtual Reality in Sensitive Settings’. The workshop title seemed to evoke classic ‘documentary studies’ texts like “Representing Reality”, “Capturing Reality” and “Imagining Reality”. I was therefore interested to know whether issues like representation, narrative, audiences and authorship might emerge...

I attended the workshop and presented a position paper entitled, ‘Anticipating the Challenges of Co-Creating Virtual Reality Documentaries with Health Communities’, co-authored with Roisin McNaney (Bristol University). In this paper, we try to outline how work on participatory documentary and complementary work about patient autonomy might combine to inform a co-creative documentary project with people with Parkinson’s disease.

There were several others presenting thought-provoking work at the workshop: Romina Carrasco (University of Melbourne) [paper: The Technology Explorers in the Highway of Life]; Thuong Huang (Deakin Univeristy) [paper: EDIE: An Education Dementia Immersive Experience using Virtual Reality]; Eugenia Kim (City University of Hong Kong) [paper: Virtual Reality Dances About Adolescent Bipolar Disorder: Accommodating Patient and Audience Concerns] and Jenny Waycott (University of Melbourne) [paper: Active VR in Residential Aged Care: Opportunities and Challenges].

The workshop was attended by a diverse mix of researchers, many with interdisciplinary backgrounds, collectively representing HCI, design, documentary studies, gerontology, emergency relief, performing arts, education and gaming. The conversations revealed a rich set of shared considerations across the disciplines, which - encouragingly - did include several areas where some of the terminology and concepts from documentary studies perspectives proved to be valuable points of reference. Based on the collaborative affinity diagramming exercise, Jenny Waycott has distilled a number of common challenges that emerged from the workshop:

  • Privacy and ethics.
  • Participatory design of VR experiences.
  • Usability and accessibility (e.g., difficulty using hand controllers in ‘active VR’)
  • Who is the audience and who is the user?
  • Empathy – how can VR be used effectively to illustrate lived experiences?
  • Content & depiction/accuracy.
  • Research environment & translation into real-world settings.

There will undoubtedly be scope to develop upon these ideas as concrete examples of ethical issues grow as VR becomes more mainstream...