The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Virtual reality is an immersive technology that produces the illusion of real presence in a virtual environment – allowing its users to receive a mediated experience rather than be presented with information. What should decision makers know about an innovation that, with large investments from major industry players, will become commonplace in the coming decades? The technology is about to radically change the way we conduct meetings and conceive of interpersonal relationships. Soon, fully virtual summits will be commonplace, and the perspectives gained from immersive VR experiences could be harnessed to make decision making processes at major governance events more conscientious and collaborative.

VR is on the far end of a mixed reality (MR) continuum that ranges from augmenting part of the real world with virtual objects to fully immersive systems. Consumer interest and adoption of MR has accelerated recently with apps like Pokémon Go going viral and most big hardware companies releasing VR headsets and platforms. Mixed reality technologies will soon become commonplace, and are widely seen as the future of computing. In a recent keynote at Oculus, a division of Facebook specialising in the development of VR technology, Mark Zuckerberg set the goal of getting 1 billion people inside VR – the technology today only has around 10 million users. Microsoft has extended their Windows platform to fully support immersive and spatial computing with Windows Mixed Reality, and Magic Leap, a secretive company that hasn’t unveiled a product yet but is promising a revolutionary mixed reality display technology, is raising money at a 6bn USD valuation. 

These and other massive investments by leading technology companies are quickly expanding the market, applications and capabilities of VR, making possible things that, so far, have only been seen in science fiction. In the coming decades, VR and its related technologies will develop from novel to truly disruptive and commonplace. Paying attention to the possibilities opened by the technology is therefore increasingly critical for decision makers and leaders. 

VR technology is commonly referred to as an “empathy machine” due to the effect it can have on users. Instead of being presented with information, the user receives a mediated experience. VR makes it possible to step into a first person perspective and feel what it is like to be in a warzone or a flooded area. There is a common saying that leaders are too far removed from the people: VR has an obvious role to play in that area, as it can bring powerful decision makers in closer connection with the people affected by their decisions.

Some early instances of development show great promise. The UN co-produced a documentary on the Syrian Refugee crisis from the perspective of a young girl. It premiered at the World Economic Forum in Davos and allowed leaders and potential donors to feel the plight of refugees with a level of empathy that had never been possible before. This VR experience was later used in a fundraising event in Kuwait in March 2015 that raised 3.8bn USD. 

VR not only carries the possibility of making stories and experiences immediately felt at a distance, but it can make the world itself feel smaller than ever before. In the 1960s, Steward Brand successfully campaigned for NASA to release a photo of the entire planet seen from space. Brand thought that this image would be a powerful uniting symbol for humanity. With Google Earth VR, you can now access a similar image of the whole planet, spin the globe, pick a location, and zoom all the way to the ground level, until you find yourself standing on the street.

Today, in international forums, VR is still an accessory to the main event, but this may be about to change. It should become an obligatory part of the process to take a virtual survey of the regions involved before sitting down for a discussion. This would lead to more conscientious, rational and collaborative discussions and decisions.

In a future where self-driving cars, wearables and drones, all equipped with cameras, become commonplace, companies like Google will be able to aggregate information from these devices to create and maintain a perpetually updated, high resolution 3D model of the entire earth. Imagine if the people involved in each negotiation with consequences for a certain border, village or landmass could actually visit that place in real time through VR? They would be able to directly empathize and hold a less abstract perspective on the issue at hand. Today, in international forums, VR is still an accessory to the main event, but this may be about to change. It should become an obligatory part of the process to take a virtual survey of the regions involved before sitting down for a discussion. This would lead to more conscientious, rational and collaborative discussions and decisions. 

With Google Earth VR, it is already possible to adjust the time of day and see the world under different lights. Imagine running more advanced simulations that allow negotiators to actually experience the simulated impact and outcomes of their decisions, with areas of application ranging from infrastructure development to climate change and wars. A UK Startup, Improbable, is building an engine for such complete simulations and recently raised a $500M series B round. Receiving such an experience of the likely long-term impacts of policy could profoundly change global governance. 

VR is also about to change meetings and interpersonal relationships. Microsoft R&D has already demonstrated a feasible concept for full telepresence through human holograms. Real time 3D scans will make it possible to interact at a distance with a much higher quality of human contact than what is possible through video conferencing today. Participants will be able to hold and sustain eye contact, communicate through body language, and experience mutual closeness. 

Communicating this way opens up a plethora of possibilities, particularly when combined with other technological developments. Imagine being able to customize your own avatar to any appearance, while ensuring that your facial and bodily movements are perfectly mapped in real time to this virtual avatar, directly conveying emotion. Imagine being able to integrate real time translation to a distance interaction, removing the need for translators. This prospect could make the huge machine of the UN translation system obsolete in the coming decades. Taking it even one step further, imagine being able to remap emotions and body language, so that personal communication styles are better matched, and greater intuitive alignment becomes possible.

In the area of global governance, fully evolved mixed reality will bring revolutionary change. Soon enough, fully virtual summits will be commonplace, and decision making processes will hopefully become more constructive, thanks to the gained perspectives that come with the power to go anywhere and experience anything. Thanks to the exponential development of its enabling technologies, VR, MR and AR will create a new era not only in human computer interaction, but in human to human interaction – and radically shift our perspective on ourselves, our globe, and the fabric of reality itself.

William Hamilton

Before dropping out to become an entrepreneur, William was a researcher in clinical psychology at Stockholm University. In 2014 he founded Mimerse with the mission of spreading evidence based psychological treatments through immersive technology. He also co-founded Vobling, a leading VR/AR-agency with offices in Stockholm, Manila and Lagos servicing world leading brands, corporations and institutions.