How to oppress people in mixed reality: some design possibilities

Alastair Somerville
4 min readJan 31, 2019

I’ve worked on some Augmented and Virtual Reality projects lately (for accessibility and for information architecture) and also just bought a Windows Mixed Reality system. For some reason, this led to a series of dreams on how to use such technologies to oppress people. In many ways these possibilities are merely the flipside of some ideas for good design. However, recognising that there are flipsides is essential to making good decisions.

Mixed reality oppression

The core here is to use what the technology can do in ways that embed power and privilege to one group and not another.

Mixed reality enables the creation of worlds that are experienced as physical and visceral yet are built and formed from ideas and metaphors.

Oppression thru symbols is manifested more strongly as the total environment is controllable. In fully immersive virtual places, the complete architecture of perceived space and society is controlled. In augmented realities, then details can be enhanced or muted and attention can be drawn or distracted.

Oppression as symbols

Fascists know that symbols matter. From Mussolini’s fascia, thru Hitler’s layered design for Nazism, to today’s finger signals and hats: fascism knows the value of symbols that bind together their group and scares their enemies.

Symbols in gestures, in clothing, in places, in words, in buildings. All (as the original idea of fascia shows – to bind and create strength).

There are flickers of these symbols all around us in modern society. Whether we notice them is really a matter of our own power and privilege.

Sometimes we cannot perceive them because they represent fear to a group we are not part of. White people don’t see police uniforms and cars as fearful. White men are basically utterly oblivious to almost everything.

For proto-fascists however, these tiny symbols (those finger gestures in group photos and those weird forms of words and numbers in blogs) all support their sense of belonging and sense of superiority.

Power and privilege thru symbols enabling a systematic sense of oppressor and oppressed.

Mixed reality can manipulate that further in ways that haven’t be achieved thusfar.

Scale matters

One of the things that comes out of some research lately is how the meaning of human scale changes the sense of place and information.

How tall you appear to be within a place matters.

VR enables full control over scale while AR enables manipulation of scale of virtual figures and objects in a physical space.

This means you can make people feel small. You can oppress them by re-scaling them to reduce their sense of self. Meanwhile, the figures of power and privilege can be made both taller and more apparent. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be too overt at the beginning but scale is a good place to start with. It’s a visceral sense of being. That mix of physicality and metaphor is a strong possibility for oppression in mixed reality.

Distance matters

How close you are from information and how that affects how you think about it comes up in proxemics. There’s ideas of ultra-personal, peri-personal and extra-personal spaces. Each space is defined relative to your own body and it is part of an area of research known as embodied cognition.

Distance matters in information design and mixed reality means that people cannot early avoid having information placed too close or too far away to them.

Again, the mixed reality is used to reduce power and privilege for oppressed and enhance it for the oppressor.

Making people wear symbols to define their status as enemy or hero was very clear in Nazi Germany. Such things are even more possible in virtual spaces – the skin you wear, the form you have are all manipulated. As with scale, existing human prejudices can be enhanced with technology. What is close to you can be changed. Your whole perception of self and the people around you can be unbalanced to disempower and oppress.

The final point is that it is not just about you. Fascism is social (more so than socialist): it bends the sense of society thru populism.

Society matters

The sense of the crowd (not too few people, not too many) has come up in mixed reality research. The social sense of place – the balance between feeling socially involved in a way that feels like you have both autonomy and agency and feeling uncomfortable with the number of people and the type of people.

Populism in mixed reality design can affect that fundamental sense of being. Make a person feel excluded or included. Make a person hyper-aware of the number of people around then, the number of people too close to them, the number of people jostling them.

Again VR enables a fuller control of dislocation but AR offers opportunities to add or erase people.

More so than playing with architecture and symbols, this is where the power of mixed reality oppression lies.

The ability to play with a person’s sense of social identity and involvement is powerful. In mixed reality, with its mix of physical and viscera, that power is enhanced.

Mixed reality design

That’s all I want to say at the moment. The ability to design for oppression within mixed reality is strong.

  • You can control the sense of place.
  • You can control the sense of being of a person.
  • You can control the sense of social identity

None of this is necessarily going to become true but I work in design and perception and all the elements for abuse are there.


The obvious movie fictions to point at are The Matrix and They Live. I’d also mention Fantastic Planet for its use of scale (tho then I’d probably need to mention Battlefield Earth too).



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX