Selected for exhibition at Connected Life 2022: Designing Digital Futures, Oxford Internet Institute.
In my previous research, I studied information bubbles during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. I learned that pro-mask sentiments condemned 'anti-maskers' for being selfish and holding faulty moral reasoning. However, anti-mask sentiments actually expressed concerns on the science of masks, rather than moral arguments such as holding liberty to a higher ideal than safety. In short, pro-mask and anti-mask individuals seemingly lived in different universes with different understandings of what is true and what is not. Pro-mask voices believed that masks prevent COVID-19, while anti-mask voices instead shared (false) information that masks are not only ineffective against the virus, but harmful to one’s health. When I told my friends about these findings, they looked at me with horrified expressions. My friends told me that they get their news from their Twitter or Google newsfeed and never considered it could be feeding them a skewed perception of reality.
Thus, I created a VR experience that allows the immersant to explore the possibility that they might be stuck in an echo chamber, while empowering them to break out.
Spoilers ahead: In the experience, the immersant starts in a grey room and enters into a physical sphere with newsfeeds surrounding them. Music plays in the background and the immersant is lured into touching a plasma globe at the center of a physical platform. Each time the immersant touches the globe, the newsfeed refreshes. Unknown to all but the most observant immersant, the walls of the sphere also become more and more opaque with each touch. If the immersant ventures onto the edges of the platform, they will notice signs prompting them to punch and break the sphere's walls. However, in order to be close enough to the walls to do so, the immersant must jump off the platform. After making the leap of faith, the immersant then must try to break through the walls; the difficulty of this task is proportional to the number of times the immersant touched the globe. When the immersant finally breaks through, the sphere crumbles, the music becomes more vivid, and a beautiful outside world is revealed, much different from the grey room the immersant started in.
Participants who experienced this piece described to me the combination of not noticing the walls becoming more opaque, combined with finally being able to break through the sphere in the end, as a powerful and emotional experience.