New innovations in virtual reality storytelling has the potential to change our moral point of view. | Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images
Can empathy be taught? The artists and academics behind a slew of new VR experiences think so, betting that the burgeoning medium has the potential to alter human behavior for the better.
In 1915, two decades after the first commercial film premiered, American audiences packed cinemas to see “The Birth of a Nation,” a three-hour, silent epic directed by D.W. Griffith. The story of racial tensions during Reconstruction demonized intermarriage and championed the Ku Klux Klan as guardians of white women’s chastity. The nation’s first blockbuster, the movie gained popularity for reflecting contemporary fears of racial inclusivity; it possibly even exacerbated prejudices.
If one of the first major experiments in the new medium of film ended up with such a retrograde product, what should we expect from this century’s emerging medium, virtual reality? By immersing viewers in another world, as opposed to the passive experience of watching a movie, virtual reality’s storytelling has the potential to change our moral point of view. If Griffith’s century-old film mythologized men in white sheets, could VR help us see beyond our skin color?
That, essentially, is the goal. But as with most mediums, especially one that removes us from our surroundings, there’s always the danger of escapism in to fantasy. NationSwell examined five recent works (sometimes called “sims” or “experiences”) to see if filmmakers have found a new way to generate empathy.
A still from Nonny de la Peña's "Project Syria Demo," a VR sim about the life of refugees. Via Emblematic Group
1. Embracing Our Differences
Nonny de la Peña is sometimes referred to as the “godmother of virtual reality.” At Emblematic Group, the VR company she founded a decade ago in Santa Monica, Calif., de la Peña brought the genre of “immersive journalism” (often pairing real sound with low-budget digital animations) to the mainstream with her short project “Hunger in Los Angeles,” which recreated the experience of waiting on line at a Skid Row food bank. Later films took viewers to a Syrian refugee camp and the Mexican border. This year, at the Sundance Film Festival, she debuted her most recent, “Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story,” about an LGBT youth coming out to his disapproving family. De la Peña, a former Newsweek correspondent, believes that VR can make viewers feel in a way no other artistic medium can. “If you feel like you’re there, then you feel like it could happen to you, too,” she recently told Los Angeles Magazine.
The "Perspective" series includes a story about sexual assault at a college party. Via Specular Theory
2. Adopting Another Perspective
For the last two years, Specular Theory’s “Perspective” series, which premiered at Sundance in 2015, has been showing how social cues can be misinterpreted very quickly. Playing two sides back-to-back, the narratives by Rose Troche and Morris May show varying perspectives on a crime. In the first chapter, “The Party,” about sexual assault, a man and woman meet at an alcohol-soaked college kegger. Gina, the girl, passes out, too intoxicated; Brian, the boy, has sex with her anyway. This year, “The Misdemeanor” doubled the number of perspectives around a fictional officer-involved shooting in Brooklyn to four: a teenager who’s shot, his brother and two cops. “Who will approach the piece and only watch one thing and think that they have the story?” Troche said to Wired. “That’s pretty much what we have in real life. The piece demonstrates the fact that just because you’re there, doesn’t mean you see everything. Through the four strings, you get to see the full picture.”
Director Janicza Bravo was inspired from events in her own life when making "Hard World For Small Things." Via Wevr
3. Contemplating the Bigger Picture
The Wevr-produced film “Hard World for Small Things,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, likewise tackles police brutality. In the five-minute story, director Janicza Bravo, a black woman, retells a deeply personal story from her own life. In 1999, while on vacation from her native Panama, a cousin had been killed in Brooklyn while holding a bag of coke. After looking up the event, all Bravo could find were short write-ups in local newspapers. Bravo’s film goes beyond that brevity to capture a whole life, leading up to its final moments. “What if their lives were more than a couple of paragraphs; what if it was their friends, where they were going, what they had read, what they had desired, etc. I wanted to make a short piece that was emotionally longer than a paragraph, and that you got a slice of his life before he died. So when he died, it’s not about the event and what he did to have died; it becomes about who he was, his humor, his laugh,” Bravo has said. For her new sim, she transposed the story to a mini-mart in South Los Angeles, where police mistake someone’s identity and fire at him with questionable cause.
A Stanford University VR project puts a chainsaw in the hands of the viewer. Via Stanford Virtual Human Interactive Lab
4. Respecting Animals and Nature
Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is bringing the rigors of academia to VR. At the university’s campus in Palo Alto, Calif., professor Jeremy Bailenson, the lab’s director, tests whether virtual reality can improve all life by making viewers more empathetic, more aware of the need for environmental conservation and more communicative. Essentially, he wonders, can visualizing the effects of our behavior change our actions? In one sim, a headset-equipped viewer grabs a chainsaw and cuts down a tree in a forest. In another film, after a person gets down on all fours and straps on the VR goggles, they become a cow grazing in a pasture before being driven to a slaughterhouse. It might just be enough for you to think twice about loading paper into a printer or ordering beef for dinner.
"It Can Wait" shows the dangers of texting while driving. Via Reel FX
5. Putting Personal Responsibility in the Driver's Seat
Even the lowly PSA is going virtual, too. Reel FX and AT&T’s recent commercial simulates the consequences of distracted driving. In “It Can Wait,” a person places her hand on a wheel before the simulation starts. She motors around a neighborhood while texting, barely avoiding bikers, swerving cars and schoolchildren in the crosswalk. As you can guess, the experience ends in tragedy. “Although people admit that such behavior is terrible and that they do it, they don’t necessarily see themselves as part of the problem. What people are doing is rationalizing that there is a safe way to do it,” Michelle Kuckelman, executive director of brand management at AT&T, told USA Today. By experiencing the film, participants get to see the danger from afar, while still catching a glimpse of disaster up close.