The fundraiser invitation promised a night of “Cocktails and Virtual Reality.” More than 40 people crowded into a Washington rowhouse, sipping mixed drinks in Mason jars before settling into folding chairs and adjusting the focus on their Oculus Rift goggles.
For eight minutes, they traversed through a squalid camp that sprawled out in every direction. It has become home to about 120,000 Rohingya Muslims in Burma who fled violence from Buddhist mobs four years ago.
Flora Lerenman, an elementary school teacher, said she had read articles about the plight of the Rohingya, but after watching the film she felt much closer to their struggle.
“I was right there,” she said. “We were standing beneath the same sky.”
Over the past two years, technology giants and Hollywood have poured millions of dollars into virtual reality in the hope that the medium will transform gaming and entertainment. But a growing crop of filmmakers, policymakers, researchers, human rights workers and even some law enforcement officials see a broader societal purpose in the emerging medium’s stunning ability to make people feel as if they have experienced an event firsthand.
These advocates cite research that shows virtual reality can push the boundaries of empathy and influence decision-making about issues ranging from policing to the environment. But they’re also facing new questions about the unintended consequences of an early-stage technology that may doing harm to users by putting them in situations that seem all too real.
This summer, a 15-person film crew flew to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek to record the horrors of the Holocaust in virtual reality as part of an effort to preserve the memory of the atrocity for future generations. They filmed a scene in which viewers who don a VR headset can enter a gas chamber, escorted by a three-dimensional hologram of a living survivor.
“We don’t actually know whether it’s this empathy machine or whether, if you have an immersive experience, you traumatize your users,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which is creating the Holocaust simulations in partnership with virtual reality start-ups. “There’s also a danger that when you have so many extreme experiences, that you become desensitized.”
Using simulations and role-playing to foster understanding is hardly a new idea. But new research shows that full virtual-reality immersion, in which a person wearing a headset can be transported instantly to a gunfight on a New York street corner, witness the gruesome crossfire of the Syrian civil war, or experience what it’s like to suffer from dementia, places a unique stamp on the brain that is distinct from watching a movie or reading a book.
“We’re showing that parts of the brain that light up [when a person has a real-life experience] also light up when one has the same experience in virtual reality,” said Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “That allows for this process of perspective-taking, which is kind of hard to do for most people.”
From sexual assault to police training
Much of this potential is yet to be explored. Producers of virtual-reality content are just starting to figure out basic elements of cinematography for the new medium — such as how to shoot a scene from multiple perspectives, how to hold the camera in ways that don’t make people dizzy, or how to build a hologram that is so vivid that observers can see strands of hair.
Nonetheless, the amount of VR content is exploding — and there are increasingly more places to see it.
At the past two Sundance Film Festivals, attendees who put on virtual-reality headsets could sit in a living room while a husband and wife engaged in a bloody domestic quarrel, or walk into the middle of a police-involved shooting — watching the same scene play out from the different perspectives of a local shopkeeper, two police officers, and the young black men they stop for shoplifting.
Separately, the United Nations has produced films about humanitarian crises around the globe, including 360-degree renderings of post-Ebola Liberia, earthquake relief in Nepal and a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan as experienced by a 12-year-old girl who lives there.
College campuses, including the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois, began experimenting this year with putting students into a virtual-reality immersion film in which a young woman gets drunk at a college party and the night ends in what might be described as sexual assault.
Even some police officials are starting to experiment with VR in hopes of training officers to handle stressful encounters without resorting to force.
The Police Foundation, a nonprofit research group staffed by former law enforcement officials, is applying for grants to study the use of virtual reality in police training, said the organization’s president, Jim Bueermann. This year, Bueermann met with senior government officials to describe his vision: to put a VR headset in every police department in the country.
“We want to get middle-aged white guys to trade places with a 20-year-old African American male walking down the street who gets stopped by police for what he perceives to be no reason,” Bueermann said. “I’ve been through enough of this personally to believe that this has huge potential for changing the way we think about the training of police officers, and their evaluation.”
One of the more provocative and controversial virtual-reality efforts involves preserving the memory of the dead. Developers recently began building 3-D models of people’s deceased loved ones to place them in a virtual environment called Project Elysium, named after the fields of the Greek afterlife. Billionaires are beginning to commission holograms of themselves to be shown after they die. Others are racing to capture Holocaust survivors before they die.
8i, a Los Angeles start-up, is creating holograms of well-known figures over 70, including the feminist Gloria Steinem and the Hollywood producer Norman Lear. Watch The Washington Post's Elizabeth Dwoskin react to seeing herself in this video:
The experience of meeting a virtual version of someone who has died can be overwhelming, these developers say. The Project Elysium developers recently put their work on hold after fielding complaints. They want to reconsider how to make something “people will not only love but won’t be offended or terrified by,” one of the developers, Steve Koutsouliotas, said in an email.
Others have embraced virtual reality holograms of real people. When Ashley Scott strapped on a VR headset and revisited the experience of meeting her 4-month-old baby, Reese, for the first time, the scene was so vivid that she broke down. The 31-year-old interior decorator had been hired by 8i to film Reese as she grew up, for a project that aims to create virtual reality family photo albums. Reese is 2.
“It’s a hard thing to put into words because it’s that surreal,” Scott says. “I felt like I was holding her again at that age.”
Empathy for the colorblind
That reaction can affect people’s behavior, studies show. In 2013, researchers at Stanford University and the University of Georgia studied the willingness of two groups to help a visually impaired individual after a virtual-reality experience. One group was asked to perform a color-matching exercise in a virtual-reality environment while imagining themselves to be colorblind. The second was asked to do the same exercise, but with a filter that forced them to experience what it was actually like to be colorblind.
The second group spent twice as much time helping colorblind people in the 24 hours after the study, the researchers found. And the effects of virtual reality appeared to be even more pronounced among those who, before the study, had been rated by the researchers as less predisposed to feel empathy for the colorblind.
In a separate study, a Stanford doctoral student in 2011 had a group of test subjects read a description of what happens when a lumberjack cuts down a redwood tree while a separate group was ordered to cut down the tree in a virtual reality. In an exit interview, both groups reported being more aware that their personal actions could have an impact on the environment. But the second group used an average of 20 percent fewer paper napkins to mop up a spill of water.
Of course, most Americans don’t have the opportunity to use the technology. The least expensive, fully featured virtual reality headset, Sony’s recently released PlayStation VR, costs $400 and is largely being developed for gaming applications.
That may soon change. Google plans to start selling a $79 headset in the coming months. Smartphone manufacturers are working to incorporate the ability to shoot a virtual reality video into smartphones. Museums such as the Smithsonian and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London have virtual reality exhibitions, and VR movies are fixtures on the film festival circuit.
Sally Smith, executive director of the Nexus Fund, who organized the Cocktails and Virtual Reality fundraiser in Washington, said she decided to produce her own film after watching a five-minute clip of “One Dark Night,” an immersive re-creation by journalist Nonny de la Peña of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida.
“It was so moving and so overwhelming,” Smith said. “I realized this helps people emotionally connect in a way that I have never seen before.”
Her organization is focused on the prevention of genocide and mass violence. A constant challenge is attracting and sustaining attention among Westerners for simmering crises across the world. In recent years, she has focused efforts on supporting the Rohingya, more than 1 million Muslim people who have been stripped of their citizenship and driven from their homes in a protracted conflict with the neighboring Buddhist majority.
They are living in camps in a remote area, with no freedom of movement and minimal access to health care and education. Many fled by sea to escape harsh conditions and drowned or were taken by traffickers.
Once she decided to make her film, things moved quickly.
Smith hired two filmmakers who were eager to try the new medium, and together they spent two weeks on the ground in Burma, also known as Myanmar, where they were smuggled past checkpoints in and out of a camp every day in a van with darkened windows.
By May the film, “Behind the Fence,” was ready. Over the summer, Smith began to show it to friends and funders at events in Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington. She also began sharing it with other activist organizations, loaning out her 25 Oculus Rift headsets “like a library,” she said. The film is expected to be distributed by Ryot, recently acquired by the Huffington Post.
Some of the most graphic images — babies with heads swollen from meningitis or a boy sobbing as he described how his parents died trying to escape violence — were not incorporated into the film.
One of the filmmakers, Lindsay Branham, executive director of the Impact Lab at Human, a New York-based creative agency, said the team deliberately chose not to show the most dire suffering — an experience she likened to “poverty porn” — given the visceral reaction that virtual reality can provoke.
“We are definitely in a nascent period of this,” she said. “I think it’s an important conversation to be having about how much to expose people to.”
For many of the guests at the event in Washington last month, it was their first time experiencing virtual reality.
As they sat in the goggles, they craned their necks to look in all directions. Later they described being struck by vivid details that seemed just out of reach — the gravel kicking up on the road as they traveled by rickshaw; the apples being carried home by one man for his wife.
“Behind the Fence” offers a glimpse into what could be the future of news, de la Peña said. “Instead of sitting around with your family to watch the TV news, you’ll go with your family to walk around and through the news,” she said. “We just have to be careful not to go too far.”