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Which problems, and whose problems, will extended reality solve?

A Rotterdam conference attended by Stanford Digital Education’s associate creative director brought stakeholders together to explore the potential of extended reality technologies.
Erik Brown discussing immersive reality projects with students and fellow panelists in a master class he gave at Immersive Tech Week
Erik Brown, associate creative director at Stanford Digital Education, in conversation with students in the master class he offered at Immersive Tech Week in Rotterdam, December 2023. Photo credit: Snapboyz
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Immersive Tech Week is an annual festival devoted to virtual reality and related technologies that is held in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Stanford Digital Education Associate Creative Director Erik Brown attended the gathering in December, giving a master class and participating on a panel on race and gender inequality. On returning, he spoke with Jenny Robinson about the ideas that he explored with students and fellow panelists — and how they apply to digital education. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

Jenny Robinson: After attending Immersive Tech Week in Rotterdam in 2022, you returned in December 2023 as a presenter. What about this conference drew you back?

Erik Brown: Living in Silicon Valley, I experience the benefits of a very tech-driven space. But it is a bubble, and there's an ethos associated with Silicon Valley. There's a running joke that in America, with technology, it's build, build, build. And in Europe it's regulate, regulate, regulate — control tech to protect the citizens. In large part, it is because of how Europe engages with tech that I was drawn to Immersive Tech Week. I believe there is a healthy medium to be struck between building and regulating.

The organizers have a vision. They're committed to bringing together local government, policy makers, artisans, industry, academia, and the local community. The ground floor of the convention center, de Doelen, is open to anyone who's in the area, even if they don’t have a conference pass. The organizers bring these different stakeholders together, not just to showcase products and experiences, but also to facilitate collaboration. They understand that the end user can be the greatest proponent for technology equity and the greatest weapon against tech’s social harms.

JR: How are augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) relevant to your daily life? 

EB: I'm a huge fan of augmented reality, mostly because of its applicability. The average person who's 18 to 34, they're exposed to AR with applications like Snap and Instagram that give you goofy filters that you can overlay on your face. There's a normalization of that technology that's required before you start getting into the real nuts and bolts of what you can do. 

I now use AR and VR routinely in my work. Here’s one example. There’s an app called Polycam that leverages LIDAR technology, or scanning. Basically, you can take a series of pictures of something and turn it into a 3D product. LIDAR technology has allowed me to make a virtual version of a Stanford research lab for Stanford Digital Education’s Intro to Bioengineering class. It’s being used by high school students across the nation. 

JR: People tend to associate this technology with gaming. Was the conference more focused on play or on more targeted, outcome-focused work? 

EB: I would say there was a balance between the two. I was curious to know how people were leveraging extended reality (XR) for community outcomes and for educational outcomes. One session that I attended was a presentation by Vivian Chen, a media and communications professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is working with her students in the service industry, where there is much tension around immigration. She wanted students to have an experience that would help them relate to immigrant employees. She created this VR experience that dropped them into an avatar working as a server in a restaurant when a customer on the other side of the counter gets rude and aggressive. She has an artificial intelligence (AI) running in the background that adjusts how the virtual customer responds based on the students’ decisions about how they react. As you inhabit the avatar, you get to see how escalation or de-escalation works. The experience has the potential to develop empathy in its users — the students may learn what workers are facing. They also may realize the need for training for their staff. So that is an example of outcome-focused research.

But there were also opportunities for play. On the top floor of the convention center, there was a space they called the Church of VR, where you could have immersive VR experiences: you go in, put on goggles, and it takes you into an immersive world. 

And when you entered the conference on the ground floor, you were immediately in an area called the Playground where people brought different XR technologies that everyone could play with between sessions. There was this mass of something similar to foam that they carved up to look like a set of mountains. And if you used your phone and scanned a QR code, you could actually see cars driving around the different hills. And you could control the cars. So there were people just standing there, and there's nothing going on. But when you look on their screens, you see them racing each other around these hills. 

That’s play for the sake of play, but sometimes when you allow people to create, elements of what they make have broader applicability or address an organizational desire.

JR: You offered a master class at the conference in which you advised college students at the Hogeschool Rotterdam on their AR and VR projects. Can you describe those?

Erik Brown posing for a group photo with students who took his master class at Immersive Tech Week
Erik Brown with college students who had designed an app that they workshopped in his master class. Left to right: Nikki Schoonen, Daniella Butrus, Brown, Khadija Akkab, Maartje Hameeteman, and Betoel Fadallah. Photo credit: Snapboyz

EB: The students merged their passions for immersive tech and their lived experiences. One student created an immersive room. It was inspired by her desire to prevent students from experiencing the deep impact of burnout, which had affected her sister, who is very young. The immersive room was a neutral physical space with soft seating, regulated temperature, mood lighting, and an on-demand virtual space with a cloudscape and a tropical wilderness space. The environment was primed to decrease a person’s stress response.

The second group consisted of five young women from a mix of disciplines. Three of them were social workers, one was in education, and one was in user interface (UI) design. They designed an app for young people who are having a hard time with co-rumination, when people complain in a way that turns into a negative spiral. They were noticing that among the high schoolers who made up their target audience everything was getting escalated, and they felt that they needed to help students process their emotions in healthier ways. 

The intervention was part digital, part human. Students accessed a mobile app, provided by their classroom teacher, that presented them with weekly journal prompts that had been developed by social workers. Their responses were then aggregated on a teacher-facing platform, which teachers and social workers used to provide the emotional support and elicit the broader communication skills the cohort needed. Strikingly, students found this model to be emotionally safer than an initial 1:1 intervention with an adult.

In both examples, we're seeing the identification of a social need, and then a potential solution from the ground that's trying to address it. People who are literally on the front lines are like, Hey, we have a problem. We need to use this technology to fix it. 

JR: Was there a recurring theme in the advice that you shared with the students?

EB: Keep in mind the target audience, and bring those people to the table during the iteration and script-writing. Focus on accessibility, authenticity, and compassion. 

Design demands communication with subject matter experts and with the people you are serving. AR is such a collaborative technology. A mixture of practitioners, technologists, consumers, and researchers need to be involved in creating content to get the full impact you are hoping for.

JR: From your conversations with the students in Rotterdam about their projects, what are some takeaways in terms of digital education? 

EB: These students are looking at ways to create digital experiences. Post-Covid, many share the sentiment that digital experiences are too passive. These students are in the generation that experienced, very acutely, the impact of remote learning — they may have struggled with digital learning — but they didn’t lose hope in it. 

Another thing the conference brought home to me is the idea that innovations do not need to be scalable. I asked one young woman how she saw herself making her creation accessible to a large population. She was frank and said, I don't think I'm here to solve everybody's problem. It was a refreshing response, because she was so focused on resolving an issue within her local sphere of influence.

Also: students should have agency. For instance, if we are trying to help high schoolers in marginalized communities, they should be helping define how, why, when, where, and for whom we're creating. 

JR: In addition to the master class, you participated on a panel, “Breaking Barriers in XR: Navigating Gender and Race Inequality.” Are women, trans people, and people of color being marginalized in immersive tech?

Erik Brown, Maxine Penney, and Hugo Faustino pose for a selfie in front of the slide advertising their panel at Immersive Tech Week, December 2023
Brown with Amsterdam-based fellow panelists Maxine Penney, a DJ who freelances as a diversity and inclusion consultant, and Hugo Faustino, a creative strategist and video producer. Not pictured: panelist Randy Robinson, who tutors students in math, statistics, and economics in Rotterdam.

EB: Because of how collaborative the tech development pipeline is, there is a series of phases: ideation, production, deployment, iteration. The ideas that percolate to the top pass through worlds that generally are dominated by white men; that affects the stories that get told, and, in turn, who feels comfortable engaging them. So, for instance, with video games, many protagonists are white men, and their missions tend to be acquisitional, with a save-the-princess mentality. 

It’s not only that diverse voices are rare at the ideation stage — beyond coming up with ideas, you need to get them financed, which means depending on venture capital, which is also heavily white and male.

If you look at stats for the UK and US, there are massive inequalities in gender and race in tech and STEM-based industries. Women in both countries make up about 50 percent of workers, but in the UK they are 24 percent of the tech workforce, and in the US, they are 26 percent

Black people in the US are around 12 percent of the workforce overall, but 8 percent of the tech workforce. Hispanics make up 17 percent of the national workforce, but they only hold 8 percent of all STEM-based jobs. And the numbers are even more sobering for those with disabilities.

JR: How does underrepresentation of those groups impact user experiences?

EB: When you lose diversity in the pipeline, the product you make suffers. For example, during the panel, one of the panelists brought up that the data used to train the algorithms in self-driving cars didn’t have enough instances of dark-skinned people in its sample. When the cars were released, sadly, there was a disproportionately high number of incidents in which they hit Black people. Another version of the problem is when police departments across the country leverage facial recognition software that hasn’t been trained on a diverse set of individuals — software that basically reads all Black faces as the same. At that point, the impact is at the level of policing and the state.

JR: Bringing this back to the digital education space, did the panel conversation suggest things instructors and course designers should keep in mind to create truly inclusive teaching and learning experiences? 

EB: Equity does matter. The panelists saw a massive appetite for more equitable outcomes. Based on my read of the audience’s response, many people are steadily growing tired of being marginalized within the AR and VR space. 

Another throughline at the conference was the idea of technology literacy. We need to provide students with tools for understanding the impact that these technologies are having on them and the world at large. Building ethical considerations into coursework can aid in creating both agency and activism. People should be able to go back to their communities equipped to have a conversation. 

Jenny Robinson is a digital community and social media specialist at Stanford Digital Education.

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