Virtual Reality is a booming industry and is considered to be a game changer. So far it has mostly been used for entertainment and to give a sense of extraordinary experiences. However, it has also been used effectively in other fields: education, museums, sport, HR, architecture and for climate awareness. In the military field it has been used to enhance training and simulate risk situations, and in the health sector to practice surgical interventions as well as to treat mental disorders and addictions and to aid rehabilitation. In the last decade Virtual Reality has also been increasingly used to think about minority and diversity politics, by making the viewer experience what it is like to face racial prejudice or survive a perilous migration journey. For these reasons VR is widely acclaimed in the humanitarian sector. Would you like to help critically investigate the role of VR for humanitarian appeals by asking how and to what extent humanitarian VR can function as an empathy machine, bridging the distance between viewers and mediated others? Then you have a role to play as a PhD candidate within this broader research project.
The NWO Open Competition Project is looking for two PhD candidates to participate in this project. You will be working with PI Prof. Sandra Ponzanesi, Professor of Media, Gender and Postcolonial Studies at Utrecht University, Department of Media and Culture Studies, within a team of two PhDs, a postdoc and a project assistant. You will also be part of Postcolonial Studies Initiative (PCI)/Graduate Gender Studies Programme and be connected to the UU Focus Areas: Game Research, Migration and Societal Change and Governing the Digital Society and IOS Platform Gender, Diversity and Global Justice.
Virtual Reality is a technology which creates a multisensory, immersive, realistic 3D environment, which can be interactive and has the power to make us experience different worlds. This can affect our cognitive and emotional responses and possibly change our attitudes or behavior regarding issues or realities that are usually remote or removed from our daily existence. For this reason, it has been postulated as the ultimate 'empathy machine', a technology of feeling that promotes compassion, connection and intimacy by allowing the viewer to experience the lives of those who are distant others, for example migrants or refugees. It has been increasingly used to this effect in humanitarian appeals to solicit donations and renew public engagement.
The aim of 'Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament' is to make an innovative and urgent intervention into the field of VR for humanitarian communication by evaluating the potentialities and pitfalls of immersion and empathy through technological innovation. This project will critically investigate the role of VR for humanitarian appeals by asking how and to what extent humanitarian VR can function as an empathy machine, bridging the distance between viewers and mediated others. The project will critically investigate the impact of VR for humanitarian appeals, in particular concerning issues around migration and refugees. It will do so by contributing to evaluation, methodology, ethics and design in an innovative and interdisciplinary way. For this purpose, the project will combine media analysis and empirical research through a postcolonial approach, with one of the dissemination results also being the creation of an alternative VR projects and collaborative practices. The project draws from different disciplinary fields such as (digital) media studies, postcolonial theory, science and technology studies, psychology, gender studies, anthropology, development studies, conflict studies, game and film studies and humanitarian communication. The project is relevant for the fields of migration, technology and humanitarian appeal, but it has wider implications for society, governance and the industry.
Currently two PhD positions are available:
- PhD in Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Critical Media Analysis in Humanitarian Communication (1.0 FTE)
- PhD in Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Validation Research on Humanitarian Communication (1.0 FTE)
The role of this PhD candidate, in Critical Media Analysis in Humanitarian Communication, will be to offer a media analysis of VR affordances, cinematic and narrative strategies (360-degree videos, installations and documentaries) dealing with migration and refugees. This PhD project will focus on how VR affects the relationship between spectator and distant sufferer through its immersive affordances, cinematic strategies and alternative storytelling techniques.
The role of the other PhD candidate, in Validation Research on Humanitarian Communication, will be to perform empirical research and develop interdisciplinary methods to test and validate the persuasiveness of VR as an 'empathy machine' and assess whether VR leads to actions and enhanced public engagement. This PhD project will focus on how we can empirically assess the effect of and response to VR for humanitarian purposes.
For more info about the project see: https://vrmigration.sites.uu.nl/