VR and Municipal Government:Imagine the Possibilities

VR and Municipal Government:Imagine the Possibilities
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In Beverly Hills, one of our mottos is that we are "driven by innovation." We recognize the potential of technology and our goal is to use technology wherever possible to improve the lives of our residents. We're rolling out our own municipal fiber-to-the-premises, which will provide high-speed connectivity to all of our residents and businesses. We are at the forefront of developing a system of public transportation which will provide on demand, point-to-point mobility using autonomous vehicle technology. Our vision for a municipal autonomous shuttle system has put us at the top of the list of "10 cities at the forefront of automated driving."

VR (Virtual Reality) is not a developing technology which most people naturally associate with municipal government. Instead, VR is something we tend to connect with entertainment and gaming -- and rightly so.

The ability of VR to virtually, almost literally transport us into another world creates an artistic tool which can allow us to enter another time, another place in an immediate, immersive way. We can experience situations from different perspectives, including the perspectives of other people. VR can open up worlds which we can explore, in which we can participate, in which we ourselves can create.

I can clearly see the applications of VR technology when it comes to entertainment and gaming, as well as hybrids of the two. As pure entertainment, you will be able to be transported into another world, whether it is ancient Rome, Sherlock Holmes's London or an alien culture on the other side of the universe. Depending on the specifics of the particular VR experience, you will have various forms of interactivity.

Whereas some people today like to binge watch episodic TV, I see a time in the not-so-distant future in which binge watching will have a twist. So instead of watching all of season 4 of "Downton Abbey" at one sitting, you may decide to binge watch the same episode from multiple points-of-view, or the whole season from different perspectives. One time you might be the Earl of Grantham, and the next time you might watch the same episode as Mr. Carson or Lady Mary Crawley.

Similarly, you'll be able to watch live sporting events from the perspectives of some of the players, in addition to neutral (and probably very cool) views. As VR technology gets built into football helmets, you'll be able to switch from Aaron Rogers to Jordy Nelson to Mason Crosby, as the case may be. Or the hash mark at the 30 yard line or a point 25 feet above the 50 yard line. And the hard-wiring of your brain will give you an immersive, immediate sense that you are actually at Lambeau Field, throwing or catching the winning touchdown or kicking the winning field goal.

The impact of VR on interpersonal connections and social interactions among ourselves will provide fodder for social scientists and psychologists, as will the impact of virtual worlds on the real world. There is the very real danger that as people retreat into virtual worlds, they might have difficulty separating reality from virtuality. What are we going to do to "keep it real"? What will we do to allow for the technology to allow us to enjoy enhanced experiential memories without letting them devolve into "Strange Days," mind-altering obsessions?

Without a doubt, VR will allow us to explore strange new and familiar old worlds and boldly go where no scrapbooker has gone by creating enhanced memories. Without a doubt, VR will not only transform sports and gaming (not to mention advertising), but also the very notion of art itself.

While it would be interesting to discourse on where VR would fit into German philosopher Martin Heidegger's theory of art - something I might venture into at a later date - I would like to explore the potential uses of the technology within municipal (and other forms of ) government.

At the Advanced Imaging Society's industry event "VR on the Lot" last month at Paramount studios, I was able to present my thoughts on how VR technology should be used by and integrated into various aspects of municipal government. Indeed, it was and is my conviction that there are multiple municipal uses for Virtual Reality.

Training VR would be a natural use for the technology. We could use VR to help train our police and fire departments, as well as public works specialists and other employees. VR training could create multiple situations and scenarios in which the employee could chose various options, with the results of the individual choices playing out before her. In much the way that flight simulators help pilots prepare for various situations, training VR could help employees prepare for various eventualities in an immediate, immersive and recognizable way.

VR could also be used by municipalities to promote themselves as tourist destinations or in attracting economic opportunity and businesses. A Beverly Hills VR experience, for example, could serve as a valuable and powerful tool for our CVB (Conference and Visitors Bureau) in attracting visitors to our City. Those who experience some of the highlights of Beverly Hills virtually would be perfectly primed to come and visit it in the flesh, to stay at our hotels and to experience our restaurants and shopping opportunities.

Beyond training and promotional VR experiences, VR could become a useful - and in some cases an almost indispensable tool -- in the future of urban planning. VR models of proposed buildings would allow planners, elected and appointed officials, and the public unique opportunities to get a true sense of a specific project's impact on its surroundings. VR could also be used on a more macro level to allow stakeholders to visit new neighborhoods before they get built, which would create the ability to better gauge the potential impacts on community character of General Plan and zoning changes. In theory, at least, we would be less susceptible to "buyers' remorse" when wholescale changes within neighborhoods are permitted, including the intensification of land uses or the development of entirely new areas of cities with completely new land uses.

But perhaps the most potent, lasting and important use of VR within municipal government would have nothing to do with land use planning, training or technical issues. VR has the technologically unparalleled ability to augment and support local programs such as Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait's "City of Kindness" and Beverly Hills's "Civil City" initiatives.

While there are those who may be rightly concerned that VR in a gaming context might have a desensitizing influence, something we have seen with current, less immersive video games which in some cases seem to have been part of a prelude to mass shootings, the technology can be developed to create the exact opposite effect. Experiencing something from another perspective, the opportunity to "be" someone else, to experience their struggles, their concerns, their feelings and their hopes can create an immediacy which opens the shell of self and which is the very antidote to solipsism and the perfect precondition to developing empathy, compassion and kindness. While the description "compassion machine" might sound a tad too mechanical, VR can indeed - through creating a variety of experiences with sensitive and relatable and truly human content - lead to a greater understanding of other people and other situations, which can lead to eye-opening, which can lead to tolerance, and which ultimately can lead to, yes, compassion.

If used correctly, VR can lead to less school bullying, fewer neighbor-on-neighbor disputes, less police brutality and more understanding for the pressures and dangers police themselves face. And more sympathy for the everyday challenges we and our neighbors are confronted with on a daily basis.

As with our vision of a Municipal Autonomous Shuttle System, it remains my conviction that technology can help improve the workings at City Hall and the lives of our residents in a multitude of ways. We mayors, elected officials and decision-makers need to start thinking of more ways to harness the technology to do just that. VR is an exciting development, on the cusp of a virtual explosion into so many aspects of our lives. The time is now. Not just virtually. For real.

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