Virtual Insanity

I’m standing on a street in Syria when a bomb goes off. My ears ring so loud I can hardly hear the screams as I stumble through the smoke. Looking down, there’s a man cradling a crimson-soaked loved one on the street. Others run for cover. Then I pull off my virtual reality headset.

We are entering an era unprecedented in human history, where one can transform oneself and experience anything an animator or creator can fathom.

Beyond the obvious gaming and prom markets for virtual reality (Yes I said prom, let’s assume I have a speech impediment, you get what i mean), people are searching for compelling use cases.

Virtual reality has the power to connect us in a profound way. As a limited-gamer (being a 30 something man I understand this is rare, I’m a dad therefore once my software update is complete my window of opportunity is gone!) the specific area that excites me most is the depth of experience virtual reality will bring to storytelling.

Journalism is about bringing people to an event or something they couldn’t attend, with virtual reality you’ll be able to take people to that place and immerse them within it. While your mind is present, your body is beyond harm’s grasp. You can focus without worry for your own well-being and sort of exist in this place without any ego. You just feel.

Filmmakers are exploring opportunities to create new movie experiences such as Hardcore Henry which is shot almost entirely from a first-person perspective. Whilst in sports the NBA are creating virtual reality season tickets, to allow you to experience courtside seats without leaving your home.

Film producer Chris Milk worked with the United Nations to create a virtual reality film, ‘Clouds Over Sidra, that puts you inside a Syrian refugee camp and follows a day in the life of 12-year-old Sidra, a girl who has lived there for 18 months with thousands of other refugees. Wearing Oculus Rift, film watchers might feel as if they’re sitting right next to Sidra. Move your head and see children walking, turning their heads to look back at you.

There are many projects like this underway exploring how virtual reality can increase the levels of empathy users feel. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab are running a project called ‘Empathy at Scale’ exploring ways to design, test and distribute virtual reality projects that teach empathy.

At this early stage some people worry that such immersive technology, if not executed carefully, could backfire. Presence makes digital death too disturbing. Dropping viewers into a violent experience that’s too shocking or horrific might alienate them and make them not want to return or get involved. Or if people have no way to take action and help after seeing another’s plight, then virtual reality could end up being just another form of poverty tourism. The challenge is avoiding confusing immersion for empathy.

Virtual reality is intimate. User experience architects and content creators are having to really think differently about how they create experiences, it’s no longer about characters, it’s very much a ‘you person view’. User anxieties will need to be factored into these experiences with the ability to opt in/out as these immersive virtual environments can break the deep, everyday connection between where our senses tell us we are and where we are actually located and whom we are with. The concept of ‘presence’ refers to the phenomenon of behaving and feeling as if we are in the virtual world created by computer displays.

There are many fascinating and exciting opportunities which virtual reality presents us with. In this article I’ve not even touched upon some of the developments in neuroscience, the available hardware or the software limitations which exist. I’ll write up more on those topics soon.

What is apparent, is through virtual reality, we can become more compassionate, more empathetic, more connected and ultimately, more human.