Virtual Reality: The Empathy Machine

March 3, 2016

Virtual reality is still a nascent medium at best. People are still trying to figure out the basic language of storytelling in such an immersive medium and are still developing the basic ways in which people will be able to consume and experiences stories told in VR. There are arguments, of course: about which technology is best, which distribution platform makes the most sense, and even the nuts about bolts of “how do I edit a VR experience like a feature film?” It’s still the wild wild west of VR, and nowhere was that more on display than at the most recent Sundance Film Festival.

The Sundance Film Festival has become not just the preeminent festival for independent film, but in the last three or four years, has become the focal point of immersive storytelling as well. Every major VR technology was represented at the festival and accessible to try. From the free Google Cardboard viewers they gave out to everyone and Samsung’s Gear VR to the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The conceit of Cardboard and Gear VR is that they can, to varying degrees, provide access to immersive experiences to anyone with a smartphone. While the Vive and Rift are purpose-built systems more akin to high-end video game platforms, that have proprietary experiences created specifically too them. They are more expensive but more powerful.

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Besides the different platforms, there were also dozens and dozens of different experiences. Call them short films or immersive encounters. but they represented the full spectrum of the ways artists are telling stories and trying to figure out the medium today. The Vive and Oculus had big, expensive, CGI, and video game like experiences. Ones like The Blu: Encounter, which puts you under the sea to give you a sense of scale to creatures like blue and killer whales, and The Martian VR Experience, which is an adrenaline-pumping extension of the movie that aims to put you on Mars in Matt Damon’s shoes. However, while those certainly had the mind-blowing qualities of a totally novel experience, they leave you feeling cold, as if their entire emotional spectrum is simple yelling “Look how cool this is! Isn’t this so cool?!” over and over and over again.

The biggest takeaway for me wasn’t the blockbuster experiences that look as if they require teams of dozens of engineers to create — it was the more personal experiences on Cardboard and Gear VR. While it was obviously that most people were still grappling with the basic language of storytelling in virtual reality (you can’t cut between shots like you can with film, how do you get people to look where you need them to, etc.) it was clear that the one thing that most people could agree on is that the most powerful emotion to tap into is empathy. There were so many powerful and affective films whose sole purpose was to put you into someone else’s shoes so that you might better understand their struggles.

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For instance, “Waves of Grace,” a nonfiction VR film directed by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk that follows a survivor of Ebola as the crisis envelopes her village on the coast in Liberia. You hear her voice as she narrates her experience, you see countless bodies being buried in shallow graves, wokrers covered head-to-toe in protective gear, and children running around smiling and laughing despite the circumstances. You see their faces close up, you visit their markets, and you can get a sense of not just the horror they had to live with but the overwhelming hope that carries them through. As director Chris Milk said, “Through this medium, you not only hear Ms. Davis’s story of survival, but you feel it. It is overwhelming, a physical force that radiates from her, detectable only by humans’ sixth sense: empathy.”

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This sentiment was echoed by The New York Times recently, as they embarked on the largest populist effort to date to bring VR to the masses. They included Google Cardboard headsets in the print edition of the New York Times so that over 1.3 million of their readers could experience their VR story “The Displaced” about the dangerous journey embarked upon by refugees fleeing their homes because of war and persecution. The Times explained this decision by saying:

“We decided to launch The Times’s virtual-reality efforts with these portraits because we recognize that this new filmmaking technology enables an uncanny feeling of connection with people whose lives are far from our own. By creating a 360-degree environment that encircles the viewer, virtual reality creates the experience of being present within distant worlds, making it uniquely suited to projects, like this one, that speak to our senses of empathy and community.”

This is the real power of VR, and to me, it’s the space that s going to be the fertile ground that helps the technology grow. At Sundance you saw this time and time again. “Nomads: Sea Gypsies” and “Nomads: Maasai” were two separate films that took you “inside the day-to-day life of endangered human cultures.” There was “Hard World for Small Things” that transported you “to a day in the life of a tight-knit community in South Central Los Angeles.” And then “Perspective, Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor” which aimed to put you in the shoes of a young black man who gets arrested after a simple misdemeanor spirals out of control and the situation with police becomes rapidly antagonistic.

All of these, and many more, were specifically designed to elicit a powerful sense of connection and identification through empathy. If VR can do one thing right now well, and the thing that it will continue to use as it’s storytelling foundation moving forward, it’s the ability to give users the immersive, emotional experience of walking miles and miles in someone else’s shoes.