To Love (Nepal) Through the Lens of VR

Experiencing the aftermath of a devastating quake in virtual reality changes journalism and disaster relief forever.

By Hayley Pappas | RYOT Films

There’s a novelty that technological advances afford us. With every new development of technology, we get to see the world through a fresh pair of eyes. A bright new look at what the world is and what it can be, who we are and who we can be. For a moment.

For a moment, before the tech becomes mundane, co-opted for the everyday, the possibilities are endless. With virtual reality technology, we’re in that moment. We get to see the world through the lens of another, and the possibilities are endless.

Some have coined VR as an “empathy machine” — a device that lets you see, hear, feel the world from another’s perspective. I think it may be a tool to teach us love.

In RYOT’s latest virtual reality film, “Nepal Quake Project,” (embed currently not available on Medium) for four minutes you experience the aftermath of the April 25th Nepal earthquake. You’re eased into the experience. Put on the headset. Adjust your focus. Don’t push the button on the right. Be sure to look around you.

And then your world goes black.

Calmly, soberly, the voice of Susan Sarandon, longtime friend of Nepal, narrates. A screen flickers on at first — projections of footage from the moment the quake struck. It’s unsettling and jarring, but nothing we haven’t seen before. Shaky shots from mobile phones, clips collected from YouTube and the news. It’s 2D. It’s something we know. There’s space between our cornea and that screen, and in that space grows a sizeable distance. One that separates us from them, reality from horror.

And then the virtual reality begins. The screen flickers off and you’re there. Standing amidst the rubble, surrounded by wreckage and devastation.

Be sure to look around you, but you want to turn it off. Go back to the screen with the space and the distance. Return to that place where there’s us and them, an arm’s length from the screen.

But you’re here, in the rubble, with no chasm to cocoon our reality from their horror. So look around you. See the dust hanging thick in the air and the debris blanketing the horizon. Watch the rescue crew dig and toss and wipe, the sweat off their brows, the weight off their backs.

And watch the swarms of people stand and look and wait — for food, for water, for their pasts and their futures — either one to just hurry and catch up with them, take them out of this present moment, this blindingly opaque reality.

Hear metal strike metal, babies cry, people cough.

And then your world goes black.

I find my hand on my chest, rubbing slowly, methodically. Chest tight, breath uneven. I catch myself spun all the way around in my chair. I take off the headset. Blink my eyes back open, adjusting to the light, recalibrating to my surroundings. My feet press into the ground, remind me where I am, who I am, but it’s hard not to feel somehow there, in some way with them. It’s hard not to feel some measure of love.

Physicist Arthur Zajonc wrote that “love allows us gently, respectfully, and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the Earth itself and to know it from the inside.”

In some tiny, fragmented sliver of a way, I think virtual reality may afford us that propensity to love and to know the world from the inside.

And with that new sense of love we hope to move people to act, to reach out and connect, with these peoples, places, communities near and far from their own. As with everything RYOT does, the Nepal Quake Project drives people to take action at, where you can support direct relief efforts on the ground.

Still, in this endeavor to foster connection, technology plays a perplexing, dichotomous role. As technology has advanced, so have our communities and our communication. Yes we’re more connected than ever, but we’re also more disconnected than ever. We can talk to a stranger across the world, connect with families and friends any time, but we can also retreat from the real world, skirt authentic human interaction. Nonetheless there’s an irony to the fact that a technology that’s ultimately solitary in its functionality has such an ability to foster a more empathetic community.

What is it about a technology that places a headset over our eyes and headphones over our ears, that removes us from the very world around us — that can so effectively connect us to the distant world beyond us?

For one, it’s to be noted that throughout the duration of a virtual reality experience, the virtual reality controls your attention. You can’t check your phone, look at your Instagram, or write an email. For that moment in time, you’re present. Granted you’re virtually elsewhere, but for the span of the experience, with those people and places, real but far, you’re present. That sort of presence is something rare in and of itself these days. Unadulterated time without interruption has become a scarce and valuable commodity not easily attained in our everyday lives.

So what we get with virtual reality is a sort of purity — an undiluted immersion and a captive audience.

Nelson Mandela once said that if you speak to someone in one language, you speak to their head, but if you speak to them in their native language, you speak to their heart. There are no language barriers for sensory experiences, and with virtual reality, you are seeing, hearing and sensationally stepping inside a moment, a place, a community other than your own. With virtual reality, I think you may be able to speak to the heart.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but we’re in that blissful moment, where technology lets us see the world with a fresh pair of eyes. And through my bright new eyes, I see a world where virtual reality grants us the chance to expand our ability to see and hear and know the world through the lens of another.

See more of RYOT’s equally powerful (albeit 2-dimensional) films here.

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