Articulated Reality: A Proposal

In the era of ‘fake news’, new means of intellectually honest argumentation are needed. Virtual reality (VR) has been proven to improve memorisation and role-taking. Articulate Reality is a VR application that provides tangible means in ‘digesting’ opposing viewpoints and reconstructing them in a way that is unique to VR. It brings groups of participants together around a specific topic to express their views, and to explore counterpoints. Debates in Articulate Reality will create a repository of collective intelligence in the form of virtual environments that embody debates relevant to the public sphere.

Concept mockup created in VR with Microsoft’s tool Maquette.

Through the sense of presence, the experiment will yield new knowledge about the potential of Virtual Reality for the benefit of more nuanced and civilised societal debates and discussions than what is found, e.g., in exchanges using our current, screen-based forms of social media. The hypothesis is that the virtual sense of self and presence will enable the participants to engage in a more mindful discussion, supported by the interactive tools for constucting an argument the application offers.

Both quantitiative and qualitative user research methods will be used to collect findings: Members of the test group will evaluate their experience of using the application with a questionnaire, and interviewed for deeper insight on how they felt the application helped them to improve their argument and/or understand the opposing side.

Articulate Reality brings groups of participants together around a specific topic to express their views, and to better understand counterpoints. The application uses the method of ‘steelmanning’, philosopher Daniel Dennett’s method of improving arguments and stepping into the shoes of those with opposing views. With the help of another philosopher, Stephen Toulmin and his model for argumentation, the application will offer interactive tools to make arguments into tangible forms, and let them be experienced by supporters and opponents alike.

The experiment is predicated on building a prototype of the VR application, and testing it in various phases of development with users, culminating into group tests. First step is to design and develop the prototype, which will take 3 man months. This constitutes the majority of the budget, while the remaining part is used to arrrange, set up, and carry out the user tests. The lead applicant will develop the application, but regarding the test phases, would like to discuss how Nesta’s networks could help in finding suitable informants for the tests.

Potential topics for the tests are topics that tend to divide people’s opinions, such as Brexit, meat vs plant-based foods, climate chage, and other political and societal topics that are timely and important for the future of humankind.

The prototype will provide a focal point for introducing the concept to practitioners (educators, government/council officers responsible for public engagement and communications, etc.) and to seek further funding in continuing its development into an actual product. While it is inevitable that the more focused use cases will be identified as a result of the experiment, this proposal starts from the premise that [working title] presents at its heart a communication tool for a new paradigm of computing (often called immersive or spatial computing), and therefore would have a broad applicability to various educational and societal contexs where collective intelligence is harnessed around polarising topics.

Aki JärvinenComment