A new virtual reality exhibit that opened here last weekend gives viewers a first-hand look at what it’s like to try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border — and a peek into what could be the future of political ads.
In “Carne y Arena” (Meat and Sand) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, visitors strap on VR goggles for an immersive six-and-a-half minute movie where they find themselves among a group of migrants attempting to cross the U.S. border.
They are confronted with U.S. Border Patrol agents pointing guns in their faces, and they feel the cold of an immigrant detention cell. They hear personal stories from immigrants who’ve made the trek.
In important ways, Carne y Arena could be an example of the political and advocacy campaigns of the future. VR is an “empathy machine,” as filmmaker Chris Milk argued in a 2015 TED Talk, because it gives viewers a first-hand perspective of life as another person, causing them to care more.
The experience is directed by the filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu, the Mexican director of the Oscar-winning films “The Revenant” and “Birdman.” It allows “the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts,” Iñárritu said in a statement.
Carne y Arena, which first screened at the Cannes Film Festival, is hardly a mainstream work of advocacy. It has surreal touches: Viewers can literally peek into the chests of the virtual immigrants and see their beating hearts.
But as debates about immigration roil American politics, it’s impossible not to see the exhibit through a political lens.
“I would pay for a bunch of Trump supporters to go and have this experience,” said Anne Demo, who traveled from Pennsylvania to see the exhibit on Monday. “There’s a level of humanity that really reaches you.”
Such VR experiences have already become a staple of the high-end charity circuit. Black-tie clad donors at galas for the organization Charity: Water can strap on VR goggles and follow in the footsteps of a girl in an Ethiopian village getting clean water for the first time.
Cathe Neukum, an executive producer at the International Rescue Committee, which advocates for refugees, said half of the donors who watched her organization’s VR production of a refugee camp in Jordan took off their headsets in tears. “If you’re watching a regular video on your TV or your laptop, you can walk away, but when you’re engaged in a headset, you’re in it in a completely different way,” she said.
When a VR exhibit about a day in the life of a young Syrian refugee was included at mall kiosks soliciting donations for UNICEF, the number of people giving money doubled, said Christopher Fabian, an executive for the charity.
The possibilities for similar commentary abound. A campaign working to end solitary confinement could use VR to show people what it’s like inside a 6-by-9-foot prison cell, while groups advocating against President Trump’s travel ban might put voters in the shoes of refugees escaping persecution in the banned countries.
For the last year, a Stanford experiment has been testing whether people who view a VR simulation of a homeless person’s life — from losing their job to struggling to pay rent to surviving on the streets — are more likely to sign a petition calling for housing support. (The experience is on view at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.) The results are still forthcoming, said Jeremy Bailenson, the study’s lead researcher. But overall, he said, there’s a growing body of evidence that VR can be a powerful way to get people to empathize with others.
Not everyone thinks VR experiences about refugees, migrants or homeless people will be so influential. In a few years, “everybody’s going to do it — it’s going to be boring,” Fabian said. “There’s a certain point where you say, ‘I get it, the world is sad.’” The most exciting applications of VR, he said, will come in education and coordination — connecting classrooms around the world and helping them study together, for example.
And not everyone who saw Iñárritu’s exhibit thought it would change minds. “People are hardwired, especially these days, in their political belief systems,” said Christine Davila, 32, of Los Angeles. Moreover, most Los Angeles museumgoers are probably already pretty immigrant-friendly in their political beliefs, she pointed out. (The exhibit is currently sold out through September.)
So far, the overtly political uses of VR have been much more rudimentary. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign released several VR videos of his campaign events, giving viewers a front-row seat at one of his rallies. Turn one way and you see the shining faces of the Berniecrats; look down and you can see the notes for Sanders’ speech.
Another project called AltSpaceVR brought people from around the country together in a virtual space to watch presidential debates and have political discussions. Arguments between people who see each other in virtual reality tend to be more civil than on social media, said Eric Romo, the company’s CEO: “It’s more difficult to be negative if you actually see another person in front of you, than when you’re hiding behind a keyboard.”
The advent of television transformed American politics and campaigning, ushering in live debates and the 30-second campaign ad. While it’s too early to say if VR could get anywhere near that level of influence, it’s likely to at least play a role, especially as the technology gets cheaper and more widely available.
In 2020, Romo predicted, all the major presidential candidates will have some kind of VR element in their campaigns.