In 2015, Donna Davis and Tom Boellstorff received a three-year National Science Foundation grant on The Role of People with Disability in the Innovation of Online Technology where they studied how differently-abled populations were using virtual worlds like Second Life.
I talked with University of Oregon’s Donna Davis back in June 2017 where she shared some preliminary findings for how virtual worlds were providing access to community, culture, employment, entertainment, and romantic relationships. Historically, Second Life has primarily used text-based chat for communication, which has increased the amount of accessibility for people with hearing impairments while Radegast readers have provided accessibility options for people with vision impairment. We talked a lot about universal accessibility, and what types of things that Second Life was implementing and what the broader immersive industry could learn about creating accessible and inclusive environments.
LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE OF THE VOICES OF VR PODCAST
Here’s a documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me by Bernhard Drax that features the work of Davis and Boellstorff.
This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.
[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So on today's episode, I'm going to be diving into accessibility and access. This is a conversation that I had with Donna Davis back in 2017, a lot of work that she's been doing with ability diverse populations within Second Life. So this conversation I had a while ago and actually was reminded of it from a panel discussion that I was just on with Donna, but I also wanted to just like set a little bit more context because I was like, wow, this happened three years ago. What was happening in the VR industry. And back when I first did this interview, accessibility was a topic, but not a lot of folks were actively doing stuff within the virtual reality space to be able to address some of the issues. Now, fast forward three years later, and the W3C had a whole inclusive design for immersive web standards that happened back in November 2019. There's a lot more talk about accessibility because I think there's been a lot of work that's been done of just trying to get the technology working. And now that it's working and we're stabilized in that sense, now there's a little bit more discussion dialogue within the broader XR community for how to bring in more inclusive design within XR technologies itself. Second Life is something that has always started with screen-based technologies. And so they have a lot more accessibility and inclusion that's built into the platform itself. So this conversation was recorded on June 9th, 2017. And some of the things, just to kind of recontextualize myself, back previously at Oculus Connect 3 in 2016, there was the Santa Cruz that was announcing that there was going to be a standalone headset. and then following on October 11th, 2017, it was announced that there was going to be this Oculus Go, which then launched on May 1st, 2018 at F8 Conference, and then Oculus Connect 5, September 26th, 2018, the Oculus Quest was announced, and then it was released that following F8 Conference on May 21st, 2019. So even within the three years that we've had this conversation, there's been the launch of Oculus Go, the sunsetting of Oculus Go, the launch of Oculus Quest, which seems to be, you know, really taking off in terms of one of the primary modes for a lot of VR. But also in that time period, in 2016, somewhere around there, and Linden Lab had announced that they were starting to work on Project Sansar, which was their virtual reality world. I did an interview with Ebe Altberg at SVVR 2016, talking about it. Sansar was launched on July 31st, 2017, but it was eventually sold off on March 4th, 2020 to Wookiee Project Incorporated. So Sansar started to integrate some of these immersive technologies, but didn't necessarily have the critical mass of the Second Life community starting to use it and the access to the technologies still weren't there. And so they kind of just offloaded it and redoubling down on Second Life in the middle of the coronavirus, there's been huge influx of new users and folks coming back to Second Life. And so there was actually like a real estate scarcity that was happening where, you know, people were just buying up all the different available land and real estate within Second Life. So we're able to look at this through the lens of everything that's developed since we first had this conversation. So anyway, I just want to set a little bit of that context before we dive in. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the WastelessVR podcast. So this interview with Donna Davis happened on Friday, June 9th, 2017 at an event that she was hosting there at the University of Oregon. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:03:30.617] Donna Davis: I'm Donna Davis, and I am on the faculty at the University of Oregon in Portland as director of the Strategic Communication Master's program. But my research area has been in VR and virtual worlds. I have been working in that space for about a decade now. My avatar will be officially 10 years old in January. And I've been just finishing year two of three on a National Science Foundation grant. working with Tom Bellstorff at UC Irvine on a project that we're doing in Second Life with people with disabilities.
[00:04:04.253] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that accessibility for people within immersive technologies, it's something that I think is a big open question in terms of how is this going to be handled? I know that within the 2D web, they have things like the DOM and things that are very explicit and declarative. But yet when you move into virtual worlds, it's a little bit more of a black box that's being rendered out. And so what are some of the approaches that you've been looking at in terms of increasing the level of accessibility in virtual worlds?
[00:04:33.282] Donna Davis: Well, we've been learning first about the issues of accessibility. So we work in the platform of Second Life, where there's a very vibrant community of people. There are about 600,000 active participants in Second Life still today. And some people estimate that 20% of that population is actually part of a disability community, disabled in some fashion or another, and that can be physical, emotional, there's lots of ways you can define disability. So we had access to a large group of people who are already in a very vibrant social space. And when we think about VR, social is kind of the holy grail of VR that everybody's trying to figure out, but it's still really difficult to do in VR, where in virtual worlds, that's kind of been the hallmark, the benchmark of virtual worlds all along, whether gaming space or social space. So what we've been learning from these people are the issues from technology. So access comes from a lot of ways. You've got financial access, being able to afford the technology. Often disabled people are not people with financial resources. They're often unemployed and on disability income, so they have very limited budgets. As we are looking with our NSF grant at new and emerging technologies like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive and Project Sansar and High Fidelity, many of those technologies require, of course, new machines as well. So it's not just the cost of the headsets and hand controls, but it's also access, financial access to a machine that can run them. So financial access is part of it. The other piece, of course, is the technology itself. So we work with people who are deaf, who are blind, who may have physical handicaps. We work with people who are bipolar, suffer depression, ADHD, on the autism spectrum, who suffer PTSD. We have a woman in our group who's agoraphobic. So there's really quite a spectrum of disability. And it's really also wonderful because this group of people say, we're not disabled, we're ability diverse. So they bring different skills and talents and capabilities to this community in very different ways. And what they teach us is pretty remarkable. So one of the things that emerged from our conversations with these people is the limitations of the technology itself. or the access of the technology. For example, we work with a woman who's deaf who grew up without anybody in her life understanding American Sign Language. So she was relegated to books. She said it was the only place she could go where she'd never miss a word and lived in books until she came upon Second Life, where so much of it is still text-based, primarily. That's the primary way of communicating. And for the first time in her life, she was treated as just a normal person. Nobody even knew she was deaf, so they didn't treat her any differently. And that was a totally new experience in her lifetime. It's pretty profound. So we understand the value of text communication in these spaces, which in emerging VR is still very complicated. And most of the new technologies don't even have text-based communication yet. They're working on it, but it's not there yet. Access can also be for the blind. One of the things that we learned, most people who are blind who are working in this space use what's called the Radegast viewer that was built by somebody, not originally intended for the blind, but it really created access in that space for people who are blind because it takes tech space and interprets it. One of the challenges is that people use gestures, which are figures like emojis in text, which the viewer cannot translate. So it creates a real problem in translation based on some of the way we use text today. Some of our text is not translatable. So as it becomes more visual, so it's fun emotionally and it's fun visually, but when you're visually impaired, it creates a whole new complication. So those are some of the issues for gaps in the access and opportunities in terms of access. One of the other themes that keep emerging in this group of people is that for them, access may be also to either a social network that their physical lives may not allow. If they live in isolation, we worked with a man who was had Parkinson's who basically had been relegated to a room in the house because he had very limited mobility. And he said that people would show up to bring him food at mealtime. Some of these stories are so heartbreaking, but he found a social life and a social system through Second Life where he could log in and actually communicate and go dance or surf or swim or listen to live music, all of those things that people do in that social space in ways that his physical world would no longer provide. And there are many, many stories like that in terms of people who live in isolation, who find it, I often think of it as Dorothy, who's just landed in her little black and white house and she opens the door to Oz and everything's in color. For some of these people whose lives are compromised at the point that their physical world is limited and will not provide access, this is a platform that provides them access. to other individuals, to a social life, sometimes to emotional support, sometimes romance, in ways their physical world simply wouldn't provide. And then the other piece of access is to work. There's opportunities for these people to find ways to create things, sell things, through the virtual marketplace that also provides them with either enough income for them to afford the technology that they're using and in some cases to actually make a living.
[00:10:37.474] Kent Bye: Yeah, and because Second Life was built for a 2D screen, most people who are interfacing with Second Life are doing so in front of a computer screen with a mouse and keyboard in order to actually type the text into these interfaces. And as we move into virtual reality, what I'm seeing is that it's becoming much more towards room-scale VR where you're not in front of a keyboard, or if you are in front of a keyboard with an Oculus Rift, even they're really emphasizing the touch controllers above and beyond even a mouse interface. And so you're not really even in front of a keyboard for any of the existing experiences that are being developed out there, which creates this block for people who need the keyboard to be able to have accessibility. But I also just see this trajectory towards becoming more and more embodied. So using your sense of turning your head to be able to see how the world changes. But if you're blind, you're not necessarily going to see those same visual stimulus. Or there's a big emphasis on spatial audio, which is also being integrated into the environment. But if you're deaf, you're not going to be able to hear those social audio cues. So I see that we're trying to mimic more and more embodiment within these virtual experiences, but yet that is going to create an accessibility gap for people who are either blind or deaf. And so what do you see as a solution there in terms of do you see that we're going to see like twiddler keyboards or people standing up on room scale experiences, or if they're going to try to be sitting down in front of a mouse and keyboard to be able to actually still interface and type text when the environment right now, reading text is not really necessarily even supported in any of the major social VR experiences.
[00:12:14.556] Donna Davis: I think that one of the stories that was one of those reality checks for me was the first time when I found myself scratching my head saying, geez, Second Life was such a visual medium. I didn't understand the attraction to somebody who was blind. and I realized how naive and close-minded that was, and the response was, well, why would the virtual world be any different? And I think that we have to be thinking about VR from a universal access perspective, because understanding human behavior and how we connect, how we have the ability to create and build and interact and learn from each other, the more access we can provide, the better everybody is gonna be. So to create an exclusionary technology, and I realize it's easier said than done. This is a really complicated problem with the technology. But I think the technology is going to really need to be able to provide access to everybody. If we look at it from universal design, it's better for everybody. And, you know, as we think about even the weight of a headset is too much for some people, but they're working on that. They're looking at lighter weight and untethered headsets. Already you think about whether they're able to use eye gaze and blinks to text instead of a keyboard. So as somebody already who doesn't have hands, or whose hands don't work. The technology is there on a 2D screen to be able to overcome that. So that's why I think it's really important that we continue to think about the lessons we learn from these spaces on the 2D screen and from the physical world that teach us how do we design and create platforms that will provide access to people regardless of their ability or disability. Simple things like it's stunning how often I will use headsets in a public event and can I wear my glasses? You know, so do you even think? Glasses are one of those things that provides better access to people So we've figured that technology out as we think about the other things whether it's hearing touch sound and movement. There's some really extraordinary things that are happening with phantom limb pain that they're finding from VR. So it's creating Marshall McLuhan and the media as the extension of man. I kind of see this as the ultimate extension of man in that we become one with the medium when you jump in the medium and it becomes an extension of our body. Is how do we continue to look at these media as extension of the human body in ways that support access and engagement.
[00:15:01.567] Kent Bye: And with this National Science Foundation grant for looking at accessibility into these virtual worlds, I'm just curious to hear some of the big questions that were being asked and then what some of the answers you were able to find from that line of inquiry.
[00:15:15.554] Donna Davis: Well, we're on year two of three, so we're still asking and still learning. But at the center of this, the real important question for us was embodiment. And what does it mean to have a body? So whether that's in the physical world or in the virtual world. And then how do our bodies create that tool for interaction with others, or even what we learn about ourselves through that embodiment, as so many of these people that we work with. Teach us so we're learning what embodiment means So we have people in our community one whose avatar is a Sunbeam one whose avatar is an alligator One whose avatar is a super gecko it's a little tiny gecko with a cape and These people say because my body doesn't matter. What matters is who I am and and how I treat you and how you treat me. It's what we do, it's what we say, it's the way we engage with one another. So that message from them is don't look at my body, look at me. And at the same time we have others who create those idealized bodies that are the, for example, the 90 year old woman with Parkinson's whose avatar is her younger self. And she's one of the most positive, resilient human beings I have ever met. And she can put on that ball gown and go dancing with her son in a ballroom, or even become a mermaid and swim under the sea. And in one of our meetings, we were talking about some of the photorealism that's coming out now so that your avatar can look just like you. And she said, why on earth would I want to do that? And I sat beside her at her computer in her apartment and she looks at that monitor when she logs in and you can see her body, just everything about her body language changes. And she looked at the screen and she said, that's the real me, not the me trapped inside this broken old body. And some people may say that's escapism. And I would say it's augmenting what her life is. It's not trying to escape what her life is. It's just giving her an opportunity to augment her life in a way that is so fulfilling and so healthy for her. And it gives her great joy. One of the other people in our group who is agoraphobic has a very vibrant family life. And she says, I know this might seem weird to some people, but it gives me joy. And who's to tell me that I can't have joy? So it makes you kind of rethink about the way we look at people and the way we judge their decisions. So escapism is certainly a problem in these spaces where if you're sacrificing the things you need to do for healthy living in order to be in the virtual space, we've got a problem. But for some of these people, it's augmenting their life in a way that provides them with a level of joy, social satisfaction, social support that they simply no longer have in a physical world, or maybe never had in a physical world.
[00:18:22.546] Kent Bye: Yeah, it just reminds me of this unconscious processing that is happening where we have a lot of unconscious biases based upon when we see other people, whether it's race or gender or being able to have an abled body. But when you're in these virtual worlds, you have an avatar that has some representation of yourself. So there's that level. But you mentioned something that was really interesting is that you start to have this inside out type of way of identifying with somebody rather than the outside in.
[00:18:52.818] Donna Davis: Absolutely. And we have many people who will say, I'm more authentic in this space because I can be the way I want to be. I can say what I want to say without anybody judging me. One of the women in one of our groups says, here I can behave in ways that my community would think is socially unacceptable for a 67-year-old. And we think about even ageism, that to want to be playful and do fun things and look young and be young for her at 67 is something her body will not allow her to do and our culture says is inappropriate. And there she is liberated in a way that she can be playful and be, well, even we have some people in our community who suffer pretty extreme PTSD from abuse, very often from child abuse. And some of the people in the community actually create children avatars, and they become part of these virtual families. In order to, as one woman told me recently, what if I just wanted a parent to hold me and tell me everything was going to be okay, or to tuck me in at night? These are things that she never experienced as a child. You know, so she's able to role play and heal some of this pain of her life in ways that, again, she couldn't go role play being a child with somebody in the physical world without it being seen as maybe even criminal. So, how do we look at the way we think about culture and we think about ourselves and we think about the things that we really need in our lives and are able to experience them virtually in a way that can be very healing, can help us learn even about ourselves in ways that might be considered socially inappropriate if we were to try to act that out in the physical world? And at the same time, they're able to maybe even test drive some things that have always been nagging at them. Like, what if I got to do this? And they can role play and realize, yeek, that's not for me. And they've done it in a way that they've not created permanent damage to their lives. So there's all sorts of opportunities as we think about embodiment and we think about experience virtually, where sometimes that anonymity can be a very healthy and rich learning experience. And of course, people will always go, but, but, but, and of course the buts are real, that there's also the risk of anonymity and doing things that they probably shouldn't be doing. that could be very harmful to themselves and others as well and those of course are always the headlines in the news.
[00:21:49.375] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to do an interview with, I think her name was Anara. She does a second life ballet. And the thing that was really surprising to me in talking to her was that I see this trend in virtual reality where we're kind of removing levels of abstraction, where we're kind of having hand tracking and using your body in completely new ways. But yet that was kind of the opposite direction of what she was doing with this ballet, which was pre-scripting and coding these movements. having these levels of abstraction such that people are kind of almost more playing the keyboard as a musical instrument to be able to trigger these dance moves, but that it was more about people who couldn't actually do those dances in real life, and that if she really actually wanted to create a dance group of ballet dancers, she would have to recruit people who were actually able to operate at that scale, but that that level of abstraction allowed these people who couldn't otherwise do the ballet to actually participate in that ballet. And so just curious to hear from you that dimension of abstraction of people who may not have the ability to do things in the virtual world, what you've seen happening, but yet what are the implications as they move to VR and we start to remove those abstractions?
[00:23:01.537] Donna Davis: Whoo, that's a big question. I think that the mind is a powerful thing. So if you think about that person who may not have legs, who may have a brilliant mind for dance, right? that can create the visual experience of dance, like the build that this woman did who was blind, by saying, I have this vision in my head of what it would look like. And as she described it, her collaborator built it. And she now has this really amazing ballroom in the virtual world that is the representation of her mind's eye. And you navigate that space through audio cues. So she's able to guide you through that space in the way that she is able. And you can think about the same thing in virtual spaces where people who might not be able to do these things in a physical world, but have a brilliant mind to make us, as somebody, when I first went into the virtual world almost 10 years ago, and we were asked to build things, we tended to build things the way we see them in the physical world. And the instructor said, why do you do that? Gravity is irrelevant here. You know, you don't have to be limited by the things that are in our mind are normal. Design things as though there are no limits. And we see some really incredible, brilliant, beautiful designs. in virtual worlds and in VR because there are no limits. Gravity is irrelevant. It doesn't matter what your physical capabilities are as long as the mind is there and can create. There's probably things that we can learn from these people whose minds, because it's difficult to come up with a different word, see things in ways that we wouldn't. and why not collaborate and learn from these visions that come from people that don't experience life the way we do. Similarly, when we're working with people with VR goggles, it's stunning how often we did an experiment recently with 360 video. We put them in the gear, in the headset, and started the video. And they sat perfectly still, looking straight on. And we said, well, you know you can look around. I mean, that's what the whole idea is. So they looked up, they looked around, and went, oh, wow. and then they look straight on. Because our minds are so programmed to look straight on at a screen and consume media the way it was designed to be fed to us, that we're not used to being able to look around and experience media in a new and different way. You put the same headset on a kid, the first thing they do is spin around. So it's that, you know, the way our minds are trained, I think VR is giving us a chance to break it all up and say, think outside of all of the norms you've ever known. And how can we create visuals that maybe it's dance, you know, it's watching the physical experience in an embodied way that may come from the most surprising places.
[00:26:26.098] Kent Bye: So you've been involved with Second Life for about 10 years and coming up here on the 14th anniversary of Second Life and with the virtual reality communities, a lot of people don't pay much attention to Second Life. It feels like an antiquated virtual world that is not as compelling as being fully immersed and having your full embodiment. But from your perspective, I'm just curious to hear like what should people that are in the VR in the more immersive computing virtual reality and augmented reality community, what should they know about Second Life and what do you think they can really learn from it?
[00:27:01.469] Donna Davis: Well, as I said, I think that the holy grail of VR is social. And of course, the first time I went to a VR meetup that was talking about, look, we all got to sit around and talk with each other, and it really felt real. I thought, we've been doing that for almost, well, in SL, they've been doing it for 14 years. I've been in there 10 of that. So I think it's, there are many lessons from that space that can guide the way we think about using these new spaces. And I think that it's been a 14 year evolution of understanding, oh, this is how you communicate in that space. So we're talking about latency or the other glitches that can happen in Second Life or any other gaming space where text can lag and it can create all sorts of problems if it's lagging at the wrong time. People misunderstand each other, you know, or text E's. I'm dealing with people with Parkinson's who make a lot of typos and they'll get joked at that they're drunk or that they're stupid. And it has nothing to do with their intellectual capability. It's their fingers don't work the same. So I think that the way we think about each other in these virtual spaces, when you can't look somebody in the eye, you can't read their body language in the physical world to see that maybe they're exhausted, or maybe they're shaking, or maybe they're crying. that there are cues that we expect in a physical world that don't necessarily always translate to a virtual world, but others have learned how to do that really beautifully. So how do we help people understand how to communicate in those spaces without those physical cues, I think is a really important lesson from these more primitive platforms, if you will, I think it's also important that we think about what are those access issues and how can designers be thinking about people that would be more inclusive because they do bring really remarkable things to a community that everybody can learn from. I think that it's also important as we hear some people who say, oh, I don't ever want to go there because A, I already know this technology. B, I can't wear those headsets. They're going to give me vertigo or I've got claustrophobia. And I went and did a test with a VR company here recently who was, I have terrible motion sickness. And they said, you're the perfect person. We want to come test our technology because our goal is to make sure that everybody can do this without getting motion sick. So it's looking at what those gaps are for people, what are the challenges, what are the obstacles in that space, and what do we learn from them so that we're designing in a way that makes the VR, the more immersive VR, still accessible and helps people understand how to best communicate in those spaces.
[00:30:04.007] Kent Bye: I'd be curious to hear from you what you see as some of the emerging technologies that could be used for people, whether it's anything from David Eagleman's Neosensory, which is basically taking sound input and putting it through your body through this haptic vest that can train people who are deaf to be able to hear for the first time, or maybe it's some sort of artificial intelligence type of computer vision that's out there that is going to be able to describe the world for people. And that's sort of like more of an augmented reality type of experience. But if there's going to be a little bit of an analog to that, such that you may use virtual reality to be able to train people how to use computer vision assistive devices for people who have some sort of visual impairment. So, but for you, I'm just curious to hear some of the emerging technologies that you see that are going to be a crucial part for people who have a wide range of disabilities who are wanting to have these immersive virtual or augmented reality experiences.
[00:30:57.495] Donna Davis: Oh, I think augmented reality is a whole nother game in terms of opportunities. And I find augmented reality really exciting in ways that it can create those layers with the physical and virtual worlds. in ways that can be so engaging, entertaining, educational. I think that education, if I could have learned about ancient Rome by going there and seeing it live in front of me, rather than reading about it in a book. And that's not to say that the book isn't important because some people have far richer imaginations and their visuals of ancient Rome by reading is much more powerful than any technology that anybody can create. So I think we have to think about all of these media as that spectrum from some people are gonna want the written word, some people are gonna want that 2D experience, When we think about what's coming, to me, the exciting thing is if we can take people to places that they would never have access to and help them actually feel that they are there, A, just to understand, oh, this is why we need to save this place, that type of experience. Or B, oh, that's what these people are living through. And what can I do to make it better for them? Or to me, what we're learning with the work that we've been doing in virtual worlds is how do we get to know each other better? by almost when we say walk a mile in their shoes, it's like really feeling that that is your body and your experience when it's something completely contrary to what we're used to. It's like breaking the filter bubble wide open and trying to understand what it might be like, not even being in that body, But to be in a room full of people who have these embodied shapes in front of us That may not even remotely represent what their bodies are in the physical world and get to know them really well and then then discover how that matches with their physical body and does it change the way you look at people and Because all of the isms that are out there, weightism, racism, gender discrimination, ageism, we define people by those visual pieces that we see of them. And I think that from the inside out part that we mentioned, that you talked about earlier, is VR has an extraordinary opportunity to give people access to visual representations of beings that are nothing more but visual representations. And if we start looking at each other that way, it's just a visual. What's underneath that layer is what's really important. And I think VR is gonna give us those opportunities. But I also think VR will give us opportunities to engage with people from the other side of the world. in real time, in a sense of real place, which is the other thing we learn from virtual worlds, is that we get to know people from the other side of the world we never would have had access to. When I first went into Second Life, there was this presidential election going on, and as I roamed around the metaverse, I'd bump into people, often from Europe, because it was during the daytime, in the U.S. on the East Coast, and they'd say, where are you from? You know, we always start with those, that small talk, where are you from? I'm from the U.S. And almost always they'd say, so, are you for Obama or Clinton? Always, are you for Obama or Clinton? And I said, you know, there's another party. Yes, surely. Yes, we understand that. But surely you would never vote for him. Are you for Obama or McCain? So I was getting this perspective of Europe that it's like, of course you wouldn't go that way. You're going to either pick Obama or Clinton, surely. which would always start this really interesting conversation with people from the other side of the world and get a sense of their lens of us in ways that you won't ever get by listening to the mainstream media and that's not a diss on mainstream media it's just saying it gives us access to people in these casual, informal conversations that aren't with any agenda at all, but just to learn about another person and you kind of get a sense of, oh, that's what they think of us. I think it's an incredibly powerful part of that as well.
[00:35:37.471] Kent Bye: Great. And, and finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:35:46.715] Donna Davis: Oh, the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be, it would probably be the point I've just made, is that if we can engage in those spaces in meaningful ways that provide access and opportunity for people regardless of their ability or disability, of their age, race, gender, income level, or any of the other things that create a profile, a demographic profile of a person, and to create opportunities to create and learn from each other, and to engage with one another, just as other humans, but in digital form. I think we could learn a lot about each other globally in ways that might help us get through some of the prickly things that are happening in our world today.
[00:36:36.384] Kent Bye: Awesome, well thank you so much.
[00:36:37.804] Donna Davis: My pleasure, thank you.
[00:36:40.065] Kent Bye: So that was Donna Davis. She's on the faculty of the University of Oregon, and she's the director of the strategic communication master's program. And since the recording of this interview, she's also the Oregon reality lab director. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, Second Life has been one of the legacy virtual worlds, and there's been lots of really interesting work when it comes to identity, giving access and inclusion for lots of different communities. I was surprised to hear from Donna who said that at the time of this recording, at least there was a number of around 600,000 users for Second Life, but that approximately around 20% of them had some sort of disability, whether that's some other condition. I mean, there's lots of ways to define what could also be called ability to diverse. And so there's a wide spectrum of folks that have different abilities. And so you can imagine that if folks don't have access to being able to do things within the real world, then Second Life would be one of their primary outlets to be able to have lots of different access. And she listed all the different contexts that people have access to, whether that's community and culture, the social network, and access to work, and to be able to actually have a job, and to gather resources, financial resources, access to entertainment, to emotional support, to individuals, and to romance, and so lots of different domains of human experience that people can experience through the virtual world of Second Life. And that there's a lot of issues when it comes to people who are either deaf, they can't hear. And so because Second Life was a lot of text space, you do text chat. And then there was a lot of integration of the Radagast viewer, which was a lightweight client for Second Life to be able to translate different things that are happening in the virtual world and translate that within a screen reader type of technology. So a lot of this stuff still hasn't necessarily been applied to virtual reality either. We still at the point where we don't really necessarily use text as a primary medium, unless you are at your computer and using something like Mozilla hubs, where maybe you're only looking at it through your 2d screen and you have access to text chat. So I think text entry is still a pretty significant issue within VR, especially if you're fully immersed within a virtual reality environment, as well as it's kind of a pain to actually type anything out, but What's probably more likely is that we see a lot more natural language processing for people speaking and then having that automatically translated into text. And so I know that Karim Maliki Sanchez with the VRTO, they were trying to have more accessible talks. And so they would have people meet up and Google meet to be able to do audio transcription. And so that type of real-time auto transcription is still the bleeding edge tech when it comes to what's available in video conferencing technology. And it's not necessarily integrated into our virtual worlds yet. But I can imagine a future where when you just have conversations between folks, having that being automatically transcribed for folks who have hearing impairment. And the issues with the screen reading, I think is probably even more difficult just because WebGL is such a black box, even more so than the DOM and what you get from a web browser. It's compiled down into this canvas that, you know, how do you really detect what is happening? And so I imagine maybe there's another layer on top of that with something like Three.js or being able to have. more direct access to something like Unity or Unreal Engine to be able to have more context as the scene graph? And how do you translate what's happening in the spatial world into something that would be a spatialized audio screen reader to be able to help folks who can't see to still have access to that? And that was one of the things that Donna had said is that, you know, why would the virtual world be any different than the physical reality? That blind people still have accessibility issues in physical reality, and there's similar struggles that they're going to have to deal with when they interact with virtual worlds. One of the things that also I think came up talking that there's going to be different technology that could be used for eye blinks or eye tracking technology and more cutting edge immersive input devices can also have a wide range of accessibility options. And one of the things that was really exciting for me to learn a little bit more about this past week with the announcement of OpenXR, I just did an interview with OpenXR and a big takeaway was that one of the things that OpenXR is going to be able to do is to allow you to remap different functions into the input and so we already have controllers that if you want to remap like say instead of pushing this grip button you want to push a trigger or you can remap that to be able to fit whatever your preferences are for that experience but if you have accessibility issues where maybe it's difficult for you to pull the grip button maybe you want to translate over that to the trigger or be able to create whole ranges of ways to be able to communicate with the specialized inputs. And that was something that Donna covered in a previous panel discussion, where she was talking about putting these Oculus Rift touch controllers onto the feet of somebody who didn't have access to be able to move their hands. And they're able to find ways that they're able to remap their body and expressing through their avatar within these virtual experiences. One of the things I did want to mention was instead of outside in, the inside out, you know, whether or not we're going to move into a future where we're judging people more upon their expression of their character within these different virtual reality environments. There has been a lot of discussion in the wake of Black Lives Matter on this phenomena of colorblindness, which is a way of just saying, oh, we're not going to look at race. And that we're going to just judge people on the content of the character rather than the color of their skin, you know, using that Martin Luther King quote as a way to kind of justify colorblindness. And there's a TEDx talk by Phil Mazzocco. It's titled the problem with racial colorblindness. And he goes through the different problems with that worldview when it comes to like. denying the whole reality of racial injustices versus people who are trying to take more of a visionary approach, but sometimes having that philosophy of racial colorblindness can cause harm in the sense where you end up ignoring and trying to downplay existing systemic inequalities. And so this discussion about what's it mean for identity expression and how people relate to each other, there's going to be existing biases that are embedded into institutions and structures within reality. And then as we start to go into virtual world, we want to, of course, not replicate all of those and try to escape those, but also not completely deny that those inequalities exist. And if there's still prejudices and implicit biases that are happening in the real world and then kind of embedded into the virtual world. And that was one of the things that Donna had said, is that there's a little bit of this chicken and egg is that, you know, is this cultural norms being embedded and replicated within the virtual world? And what part are the virtual world cultivating new behaviors that then are being exported into reality as well? Anyway, I just wanted to make that as a note in the context of all the latest stuff that's been happening when it comes to talking about some of these different issues. So there's risks for only looking at through the lens of the individual by denying the collective experiences that folks have. But avatar representation and how people choose to represent themselves Donna was citing a number of examples of folks who were fully embracing that of wanting to have like a completely idealized vision of themselves where they didn't want to be judged by their older and more mature body that was crippled by these different diseases. Maybe that's not necessarily how they want people to remember them and to think of them. And so having these more idealized versions of themselves within these virtual environments as well. And so I think it spans a whole range of whether or not you want to be as photorealistic as possible or to be able to have different representations that maybe more accurately reflect the type of character and personality that you want to show to the world. So lots of different interesting perspectives there. And still Second Life has been pioneering a lot of the space and exploring a lot of these different dynamics. And so, yeah, just great to hear a lot of the perspectives from Donna, the full range of different approaches towards this issue. And the final thing that I would say is, you know, I think within the virtual reality community, Second Life is not looked at as much, but I think that it's one of these examples where there's been so much innovative work when it comes to governance and identity and economies and so many different social group dynamics that have been played out that I think it's fascinating to start to tap into that and see what kind of lessons are learned. From my perspective, personally, I've never really got into Second Life and never really spent much time there. Certainly there's a lot of people from Second Life that have come over to VR, but also folks that have decided to stay and spend most of their time within Second Life just because There's different relationships that people have been able to cultivate, different trust, a different context that's being able to been set. And so it's a whole community that I think that social VR worlds that are out there now are still very nascent when it comes to that development. I mean, Second Life was launched on June 23rd, 2003. And so it's 17 years into being able to work a lot of these different things out. So there's been lots of really great pioneering work of people that have been either embedded themselves as journalists talking about the culture and evolution or academics like Donna who's been researching different things and actually engaging and continuously participating in different communities there for the past 14 to 17 years. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.