By Pip Usher
Not just the domain of gamers and geeks, VR is now being pioneered as a tool to help women in a host of different ways, from educating workplaces about sexual harassment, to exploring the heights of female desire, and even managing the pain of childbirth.
In November 2016, digital expert Morgan Mercer woke up with the idea for Vantage Point, a sexual harassment training programme delivered via virtual reality. A two-time survivor of sexual violence, she’d become increasingly interested in how people could relate to thorny issues – such as racism or sexism – that may never impact their own lives. Virtual reality, she realised, would lend an uncomfortable intimacy to training sessions that seminars and manuals could not. By the time her product launched, the #MeToo movement had gained global traction, with high-profile cases emerging everywhere from the Hollywood Hills to governmental offices and corporate boardrooms. In this new climate, Mercer’s idea seemed not only prescient, but essential.
“It’s hard to explain a feeling that you’ve never felt before, right?” she says. “It’s really hard for me to to tell you what love feels like if you’ve never felt it; it’s really hard for me to tell you what it feels like to be scared if you’ve never been scared.” With that in mind, Vantage Point places participants directly in the experience. As with most video games, it starts with picking an avatar, who subsequently bears witness to a fellow employee being harassed in the workplace. Throughout the training, the avatar is presented with a range of choices that will directly impact the situation’s outcome. One decision leads here, another will lead there, but each choice has a consequence. Much of the emotional stimuli found in real-life harassment – the subtle tonality of dialogue, an invasion of personal space – is replicated to create a build-up of tension. Mercer says that, after undergoing the training, male participants have approached her to say that they’d had no idea what harassment felt like until now.
While most of us first encountered VR in 1999’s The Matrix, today it’s an affordable household reality; an Oculus Go headset currently retails at around £199. With Mark Zuckerberg announcing plans to get a billion people using virtual reality (Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 for $3 billion), momentum is gathering – and Mercer is one of a slew of entrepreneurs looking to broaden VR’s fanbase beyond gamers in darkened rooms.
Filter out the gimmicky thrills, multiplayer shooter games and workout experiences, and you’ll discover an emerging function for virtual reality: that of change-maker. In creating powerful experiences beyond the realm of users’ own scope, VR has the potential to be pioneering and disruptive. And it turns out that its immersive qualities are well suited to issues that impact women – from a project that takes you inside a college party sexual assault to managing pain during childbirth.
But does virtual reality really have the capacity to generate genuine perspective-altering empathy for others? In a TED talk titled How Virtual Reality Can Create The Ultimate Empathy Machine, filmmaker Chris Milk claimed that it profoundly connects people in a way that other forms of media cannot. His mini-documentary, Clouds Over Sidra, created in partnership with the UN, allowed viewers to follow a 12-year-old Syrian refugee living within a refugee camp in Jordan. After it was shown at a humanitarian fundraising conference, pledges reached $3.8 billion, over 70 per cent more than anticipated.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, who has been studying the correlation between VR and empathy at Stanford University since 2003, has found that VR can indeed empower users to better understand the perspectives of others. However, not all of his experiments have yielded positive results, notably when it comes to race. “It is a powerful experience to inhabit the avatar body of a minority and experience a scenario in which you are discriminated against, but a VR scenario can’t hope to capture all the subtle aspects of discrimination that a person experiences in her life,” Bailenson writes in his book, Experience on Demand. In other words, even virtual reality has its limits.
Vantage Point’s sexual harassment training is taking such shortcomings into account. Participants’ decisions are reviewed and feedback is provided on where they failed to act constructively. If they witnessed a chance to intervene and didn’t, the aim is that next time they’ll engage with the harassment sooner. If they failed to intervene and treated their colleague coldly, the hope is that they’ll learn to react with increased empathy. Then they take the training again. “It’s continuous improvement,” Mercer says, “until everybody has a sense of accountability.”
Barcelona-based Dinorah Hernandez has utilised VR’s heightened sense of intimacy for something rather different: the furthering of female pleasure. As head director and content manager at BaDoink VR, she specialises in producing virtual reality porn for a predominantly male gaze. Last year, however, she turned her hand to female-focused content with Virtual Sexology II: What Women Want, a VR experience that blends female sex education with adult content. “With VR, you can enter a fully immersive environment in the comfort and privacy of your own home,” Hernandez explains. “Our thinking is that Virtual Sexology gives you the opportunity to practice and explore on your own, so when you are with another person, you will have more confidence and experience.”
Hernandez’s first attempt at appealing to the female gaze proved tricky. Do women want a lot of eye contact? How do you strike the right balance between sweet and steamy? The result was a 48-minute film with a cast of characters that includes Jay Smooth, a floppy-haired porn star whose genial looks avoids the industry’s usual clichés (“Women don’t typically want this very muscular, chiseled man,” notes Hernandez). “I want you so much,” Smooth purrs as he looks towards the user’s avatar, a role played by actress Katie Morgan. Morgan’s body acts as that of the user’s; when Smooth begins to suck and nibble her toes, the viewpoint is that of lying supine and gazing down the bed at him.
As the action escalates between Smooth and Morgan, a voiceover interjects to explain the psychological and somatic benefits of intimate touch on couples who are struggling to connect sexually. The next scene follows a platinum-blonde female actor, plus the avatar, exploring sex toys and sensual breathwork together while the narrator explains womens’ path to arousal. To add legitimacy to the project, BaDoink teamed up with a certified sex therapist to develop sex-positive content that sought to engage meaningfully with female desire.
After four years behind the camera, Hernandez can vouch for the surreal power of VR. She recalls a shoot in which an actor flicked her hair close to the camera. Hernandez felt a breeze sweep across her face – even though she was stood at a distance and wearing huge goggles. After hours of filming, her brain had started to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, filling in the sensory blanks for what she was watching.
“It’s a hyper-realistic experience,” she admits. “You can totally lose yourself in this world.”