VR brings us closer to the world than any other technology out there, but that means we have to be more conscious and sensitive to what we show then ever. Mark Zuckerberg just learned that the hard way.
Earlier this week the CEO of Oculus’ parent company, Facebook, hosted a livestream from the company’s VR social platform, Facebook Spaces. The app allows Facebook users to digitize themselves as virtual avatars, meet up with friends, and then explore locations displayed as 360 degree images and videos. During a portion of the stream, co-hosted by Head of Social VR Rachel Franklin, Zuckerberg travelled to Puerto Rico. The country was of course recently hit by Hurricane Maria, a storm that has so far claimed the lives of 43 people.
Zuckerberg and Franklin’s virtual visit was intended to emphasize the devastation the country has been hit with, and highlight Facebook’s own relief efforts as the deeper connections we can grow through the tech, but Spaces — still in open beta — didn’t help to put the message across. Zuckerberg’s avatar grinned in tone deaf joy as he spoke about the tragedy, pointing out heavily effected areas.
Indeed, the very idea of using Puerto Rico’s struggles to advertize is irksome. Needless to say, some were left angry instead of enchanted by the CEO’s efforts.
Zuckerberg later responded to comments on the stream, reasoning that watching the tour over a 2D display wouldn’t have the same affect. “When you’re in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real,” he said. “But that sense of empathy doesn’t extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time.
“Reading some of the comments,” he added, “I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
While Zuckerberg’s intentions may have been genuine, this goes to show that the immense benefits of VR also come with added risk, and are to be used responsibly. The added empathy the platform provides doesn’t give us an excuse to exploit the pain of others, no invade the privacy and respect we all expect on a day-to-day basis, regardless of circumstance.
Zuckerberg will next be seen later today speaking at Oculus Connect 4, which you can also watch live.