Will virtual reality make its way into deliberative projects?

The field of application of virtual reality is widening. Initially conceived by and for the world of video games, virtual reality and the metaverse continue to attract professional actors in culture, education and even transport. When and how will virtual reality reach the world of citizen participation? Can it overcome the limitations of the current online dialogue platforms? We are launching an action research project on these technological developments with Arizona State University and the Elyx Foundation.

Since the beginning of the Covid crisis, we have become accustomed to online citizen dialogues while confronting their limitations: technical problems, reduced interaction, rapidly depleting levels of concentration and energy, little room for the emotions and non-verbal communication that implicitly connect us.

What are the trade-offs between physical, online and virtual deliberation? Here we face an important moral and ethical dilemma about commitments to key principles and values such as democratic accountability, transparency, equity and justice. This is the focus of the action research we are conducting with the Center for Sciences, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University and the Elyx Foundation. At this stage, we see some interesting avenues for citizen participation. Here are five of them.

#1 An immersive and living experience

During a European citizen dialogue on the challenges of the European presence in space, we proposed a sequence called “Space, we’re taking you there”. It was a powerful sequence, co-created by our director Lord Wilmore with our colleague Patrice Levallois, in which Claudie Haigneré, the first French astronaut, recounted her experience.

The same sequence in virtual reality would have allowed participants not to see the images narrated by Claudie Haigneré, but to experience these images through immersion while being accompanied by the voice of the spacewoman, like looking through the window of a space shuttle, flying over the continents, seeing the earth passing by. Virtual reality, and its 3D, allows us to live an experience rather than simply being a spectator.

“Together, we will also be able to reflect on the issues, the limits, and the steps to be taken to ensure that this project is inclusive, supportive, and that a high level of quality dialogue is maintained.

Yves Mathieu

Founder & co-director, Missions Publiques

#2 Issues better understood in a simulated and lived reality

When it comes to development or major projects to be debated, the information tools used are often plans, computer graphics, a few images and a story. With virtual reality, it will be possible to visit and experience the project before its creation.

Henriette Cornet, who is now in charge of the autonomous mobility programme at the International Association of Public Transport, took part, with Tumcreate, the Singaporean laboratory where she was working at the time, in an international citizen dialogue that we organised in 2018 and 2019 in 26 cities around the world. Tumcreate developed several virtual reality platforms to simulate the deployment of autonomous mobility in Singapore. With the 3-D headsets, participants physically lifted their feet as they moved from the road to a pavement, saw autonomous vehicles approaching them, just like in a real street, and were able to advise on the most appropriate lighting, sounds for them, and share their emotional reactions.

#3 A change of perspective that develops empathy and changes attitudes

In the same vein, virtual reality, in its ability to offer an experience, can serve to raise awareness by allowing individuals to take the place of people suffering from a particular situation (examples: LABYRINTH PSYCHOTICA, a virtual reality project to raise awareness of schizophrenia, or the forthcoming awareness-raising campaign, CHAOS by the agency E&H LAB) This approach can also be used to understand what a refugee camp is, a migration trajectory…

By proposing a change of perspective, we increase the capacity of participants to better understand the situations of others, to become aware of their difficulties, to change the way they look at things, to deconstruct prejudices.

#4 Global and multilingual meetings

There is no substitute for face-to-face meetings. But when 200 people meet for three days and speak 24 different languages, they need to be accompanied by a roughly equivalent interpretation team. The technological equipment of the Citizens’ Panels organised in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe is like clockwork, and nearly twenty technical assistants are working alongside the interpreters and the citizens. Not all world assemblies will be able to afford this support.

We can obviously reduce the dispersion of languages, and invite citizens from several countries who speak 4 or 5 common languages. This is feasible, but it reduces the inclusiveness of these processes.

In the most recent applications of virtual reality, it is now possible for two humans who do not speak the same language to meet through their avatars, and to read in their own language what the other is saying, in comic bubbles. This is an automatic interpretation, and therefore inaccurate. We are also aware that if the person cannot read, they will not have access to the translation of what the other person is saying.

The evolution of these technologies will undoubtedly further simplify the interfaces.

#5 Fully virtual participatory places

Elyx already has its experiential museum, with great works of art, a tour, a bar and a terrace.  Soon, we will be experimenting in virtual reality with a plenary meeting space, with work rooms adapted for citizen dialogue: the permademocracy space imagined by the Luc Schuiten workshop with the Missions Publiques team will be experimented with in virtual reality.

For the past three years, virtual reality has seen a sustained evolution in the technologies and applications available. Today, there is no longer any need for a headset with cables connected to a powerful computer to access virtual reality: a wifi connection is all that is needed – the investment is around 300 euros. This is a significant reduction in costs compared to procedures where citizens from different countries have to travel.

In our opinion, the possibilities of virtual reality deserve in any case that practitioners and researchers of citizen participation look into this issue.

Let’s experiment with these possibilities together! If you would like to know more and/or be part of this action-research, please contact Camille Dobler, Research Director at Missions Publiques.

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