XLAB 2020

Treating Discrimination Through Virtual Reality

Presented by: Justin Rosenberg, Felicity Popovich, Taulant Xhakli, Makendy Midouin, Michael Sakmann & Jade Alexis Westhoven
Faculty Advisor: Dr. Benjamin Wagner, Professor of Psychology; Dr. Staci Shultz, Associate Professor of English; Dr. Robert Vermilyer, Professor of Computer Science; Nina Bellisio, Professor of Visual Communications & Dr. Evan Matthews, Professor of Music    


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This study is aimed to investigate and treat discrimination in the daily life of college students with the use of virtual reality. Specifically, this study will focus on collecting reactions to the normalized bias’ of race, gender, and weight. The proposed study will use around 60 college-aged students who are registered at St. Thomas Aquinas College. Students will be volunteers who are willing to participate in the virtual reality forum. Students will be asked to use the virtual reality headset to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. As they enter virtual reality they will be dropped into a mall scenario. 

In this mall, they will be able to wander the halls and enter three respective rooms. The first room will be a dance studio where the students will be tested on their underlying bias against weight. The second room will be a clothing store in which levels of racial discrimination will be tested. The final room will be a movie theater in which the researchers are looking to find a hidden bias against gender. When completed, this can help bring awareness to the user of their possible bias and help them grow from their experiences.  

It is generally accepted that unchecked bias is a negative force within each of us. Our bias becomes a problem when we allow it to take control of our conscious thoughts and influence the ways in which we treat others, making this unjust treatment of others discrimination. The goal of this project is to point out the ways that unconscious bias affects each individual and to use virtual reality to put them in the scenario of an individual who is experiencing discrimination. The question posed as researchers is how can people enhance their empathy for others with the use of technology? This starts with bringing awareness to the ways our bias’ affect each other. 

By allowing the users to experience a 1st person view of the targeted groups, in turn, will hopefully help the user learn to be empathic and not just limit their outward discrimination toward these groups but also be able to recognize and prevent others from doing the same. Whereas experiencing the scenes in a 3rd person perspective would, as studies show, not impact them as much as when being confronted with discriminatory remarks. If successful, it can prove to be significant as this can help change and minimize the unconscious behaviors that people use when interacting with each other.