Ask pretty much anyone what comes to mind when they hear the words “virtual reality” (VR) and you will most likely hear “video games.” This makes sense; in the 1990s, with the widespread commercial release of consumer headsets, VR became an increasingly common video game tool. At the World Bank, we have taken advantage of this technology for a very different purpose: for the first time, to our knowledge, VR was used in a controlled setting to expose individuals to diversity and evaluate its impact on social outcomes.
In a novel research project, we investigated the impact of improved layouts of public spaces on the willingness to use them, and of higher exposure to diverse groups on the willingness to trust, interact with, and positively perceive outgroups. Young participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups, with each group being exposed to a different variation of a two and a half-minute-long VR experience: a control group that saw a park in its natural state; an urban design treatment that saw 3D layouts added to the park; a diversity treatment that saw people from different backgrounds; and a treatment arm that combined all. Immediately after, they took a survey designed to capture whether VR improvements in the design of a public park would increase participants’ intention to use it, as well as their attitudes towards various social groups shown in the VR.
We found that virtual improvements in the layout and design of the park led to an unequivocal increase in the participant’s willingness to visit the public park. This finding held up even when the improved virtual park included a group of people from very different backgrounds. There were some differences across groups, though, suggesting that less educated, poorer, and underrepresented groups did not identify as much with the changes made in the urban design, or found them less likely to meet their specific needs. Exposure to diversity alone did not have a consistently positive or negative effect on participants’ reported trust and willingness to engage with people from diverse groups.
Virtual reality presents an opportunity to inform policy on attitudes and behavior in a more holistic perspective than traditional methods. VR allows “movement” comparable to the real world – walking, grabbing, and pivoting your head to see up, down, and behind you. VR enables “presence,” which allows the brain, and memory in particular, to make the experience indistinguishable from a real experience. Anything is possible in a virtual simulation. A user can virtually travel in space and time to experience novel situations – for example, to learn about culture, poverty, or conflict.
In the policy and development field, the potential of VR remains largely untapped. For example, VR can bring the world’s most pressing challenges home to decision makers around the world, and it can simulate environments that are otherwise too difficult or costly to create in the real world. It can also enable researchers to maintain a high degree of experimental control at a relatively low cost.
We learned a lot from this experience. First, even a short, subtle intervention had a significant impact on self-reported outcomes. Second, digital technology such as VR can be a fast and cost-effective tool for inclusion and stakeholder engagement. Crucially, this technology allows for developing a suite of options for a transformational investment, testing out of ideas, seeking inputs from diverse groups, and quickly adjusting virtual designs. This provides a more efficient process than the traditional use of detailed architectural drawings for public consultations. Finally, while the impacts on social outcomes in our project were mixed, this study provides a foundation for future studies to keep exploring VR as a stimulus tool to promote social exposure as a first step toward addressing social biases.