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Zuck shows Virtual Empathy by visiting storm-wrecked Puerto Rico in VR

Social Network™ indulges in disaster pr0n in the week it has new VR kit landing

Updated Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has visited Puerto Rico in virtual reality.

The timing of his virtual visit isn't entirely altruistic: Facebook's VR conference, Oculus Connect 4, kicks off on Wednesday US time. Zuck's video includes him saying he will “announce some stuff I am not going to announce now” at the conference.

To tease us all about those announcements and the general awesomeness of VR, the video saw Zuck and Facebook VR supremo Rachel Rubin visit the hurricane-battered island.

Zuckerberg showed a cartoon avatar of himself imposed on a 360-degree video captured by NPR. He said the video lets you “get a sense of some damage here that the hurricanes have done”.

“One of the things that is really magical about VR is that you can get the feeling you are really in a place,” he added, before going on to remark on the suffering residents of Puerto Rico have experienced.

Facebook has also made other contributions to the crisis. Zuckerberg said the company has donated US$1.5m to the relief effort, activated the Safety Check feature that lets people inform their loved ones they're safe and sent people to the island to help restore internet services so that citizens and emergency responders alike can enjoy internet access.

He also revealed a new effort with the Red Cross to help the organisation create maps depicting where people in need of assistance can be found.

But the video is also cringeworthy: Zuck stops in front of an image of a flooded street and observes “this street is completely flooded”, prompting Rubin to say “It's crazy to feel like you are here”.

But the pair weren't there and couldn't feel what it means to be there. Nor could they feel what it is like to have lived through Hurricane Maria, to live on that submerged street, to have loved ones killed or injured by the storm, to have lost access to potable water or to face a terribly uncertain future amidst ruined infrastructure. Nor can the video show what it's like to live in an unincorporated territory that confers US citizenship on its residents but does so without also conferring the right to vote in in federal elections.

After about three minutes of time in virtual Puerto Rico, Zuckerberg and Rubin “teleported” back to California to continue their exploration of VR's awesome power to inspire. They later visited the virtual moon, but not until a technical glitch interrupted transmissions and kicked them back into reality for a while.

Although perhaps not enough of a reality to demonstrate the difference between documentary journalism about a tragedy, and exploitation of a crisis for commercial purposes. ®

Updated to add

Zuckerberg has apologized, posting on his Facebook page:

One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what's happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn't clear, and I'm sorry to anyone this offended.

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