Imagine reuniting with a close friend after many months. You feel her embrace, share some tears, and engage in a meaningful conversation, all in the same space. You are able to do this – all the while that you are in the Cairo and your bestie is in Paris. This is virtual reality.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that existing and emerging technology has the power to bring people together and build connections. During the past 18 months, meetings, conferences, and classrooms moved to a virtual environment – a new frontier for many of us. Suddenly, we could interact with the world from our homes. With the tap of a screen, we could connect with those around us. As borders closed and the pandemic surged, meeting virtually became the new normal.
In this evolving environment, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. Department of State is using technology as a way to adapt, to build cross cultural relationships, and to connect a global community. ECA recently hosted a program with Egyptian publishers and content creators, who explored what it means to connect, to read a book, and travel to new meeting spaces using virtual reality (VR) technology. Over the course of five weeks, participants explored college campuses, book fairs, convention halls, monuments, and new cities together…without leaving their respective homes.
Despite not being together in one physical space, or even in the same country, the publishers were able to build connections that were more engaging and more ‘real’ than your typical video call. Nada El-Shabrawi, a YouTube content creator from Egypt, recalled strong emotions when meeting her close friend for the first time in the virtual world. Since relocating to Paris, the pair had numerous opportunities to video chat, but she admitted that she cried when their avatars shook hands because it felt so real. El-Shabrawi described seeing others in the same virtual space as more “humanizing” because they’re able to move about in their shared environment. Unlike the typical two-dimensional space, she was able to move freely and have private conversations within the virtual space. Another participant, Rabab Fouad, shared similar sentiments. She said the video conferencing creates separate environments, but virtual reality creates the illusion that you’re together physically and your brain actually believes you are in the same space.
When the Egyptian publishers experienced how books could be presented in virtual reality, they saw a glimpse of the publishing industry’s future but they also experienced a highly effective option to add value to future exchange programs. Virtual environments allow cross-cultural programs to become more accessible and perhaps offer a low-cost alternative to extend the exchange experience beyond the actual in-person activities.
Yet, can VR replace the experience of an in-person connection and international exchange? As we continue to navigate the changing digital landscape, can we, as social beings, continue our daily lives in this environment? How can we foster social connections and the serendipitous encounters that exist naturally in-person, such as meeting a new friend at an event, or talking to the local grocer?
In the Egyptian publisher program, VR effectively allowed the group to interact, but the overall experience was different because when the headset came off, the experience ended. The participants were not able to spend their free time getting to know their cohort or individually exploring a new environment.
In-person connection is still vital to the nature of international exchanges. The professional exchange programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of State are rich in curriculum and immersion experiences that influence not just our international visitors, but also those working with the programs in country and sharing experiences across international borders. Human connection plays a huge role in facilitating the exchange of cultures and building connections across the world. By interacting with others from different backgrounds, participants gain a mutual understanding of the world that moves us towards peaceful coexistence.
VR is a great complement to in-person programming that can give our diplomats another effective tool to build connections. A virtual environment can bring exchange participants across the globe together for a cross-cultural exchange and provide participants with an experience that mimics the effects of an in-person exchange. As the world moves into a virtual-hybrid reality, we have to consider VR as an accessible supplemental experience with true benefits for the user.
As the international exchange community searches for effective ways to build connections across the globe when flights, vaccinations, and quarantine protocols still cause severe disruptions, virtual reality holds vast potential.
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About the Author: Kristin Mitra serves as a VSFS virtual intern in the Office of International Visitors of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.