Empathy Machines For The People

The Alternative hosted 360° Democracy: The Politics of Immersive Technology at The Old Market in Hove. I was there, interviewing a couple of VR filmmakers on stage.

This is one way that markets start: creative people and technologists get together to explore the possibilities of a new piece of kit, to ask what it is and what it should be for, to share their experiments, learning and plans. Is VR just about gaming? Is there more to it than total immersion in a football match? Beyond the obvious, what can these 360 cameras and headsets bring to the world and what development will take off and find a mass audience or an enduring niche?

VR has been described as an empathy machine. It is a medium that puts the viewer in the protagonists shoes. It closes the gap between storyteller and audience like no other medium. It allows you to walk in someone else’s shoes and experience their life for yourself. Feeling what someone else feels is empathy.

Jayisha Patel made Notes To My Father, a VR film about sex trafficking in India. The film reconstructs the story of Ramadevi and her relationship with her father who sold her to traffickers thinking he was arranging a marriage, but perhaps knowing that all was not right. VR allows the viewer to explore the detail of her story — the poverty of her village, being the only woman on the train that took her away from home, the stinking alley leading to the brothel where she was raped. By piecing together the story, the viewer has space to think and develop their own point of view. The father may have been complicit, but do the circumstances play a part. And if so, is this why sex trafficking is such a massive problem in India?

Toby Coffey is head of digital development at the National Theatre. He is exploring how drama can help immersive media connect to society. Home is a series of 360 films exploring the meaning of home to refugees in the Calais Jungle. The first film tells the story of Aamir, a 22 year-old fleeing Sudan. This is verbatim theatre, taking interviews with Aamir as the script and the story recreated in film. VR allows the viewer to effectively take that perilous journey for themselves. There is a point where the film plunges into darkness as a river is crossed. When seeing film, Aamir could not watch that, he couldn’t relive the fear.

In an age when we are often numb to the horrors we see reported every day, it takes a truly extreme image, like a dead child on a beach or a tower block on fire, to make us feel anything. VR has the potential to rehumanise media and in doing so it can help documentary makers and political theatre producers tell more powerful stories.

One criticism of VR is that while it gives the sensation of being there, you are most definitely not there. You are somewhere safe. You may think there is no distance between you and the protagonist but this is false empathy, because you have all the distance in the world between your life and theirs.

Nick Duffell sees this apparent weakness as a strength. Nick is a psychotherapist and is using VR as a therapeutic tool. In therapy, it can be incredibly useful to be able to distance yourself from yourself. Nick and VR film-maker Juliet Brown are exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the technology in this area.

During the evenings discussion, an audience member suggests that the real everyday potential for VR will be telephony meets teleportation. On VR phone calls we will be all present in the same space. Maybe VR will finally replacing the Doom-like horrors of the conference call with something warmer and more emotional experience.

To walk into a room where half a dozen VR headset-wearing people are twisting around in their own private contortions is a pretty surreal experience. Whatever they are watching, they watch it alone. There are no audience dynamics, no collective shared emotion, no ripples of laughter or simultaneous jerks of shock. In this sense, VR feels like it will be to film what the Walkman was to music. It will privatise a social experience. Just as we went from the ghetto blaster on the street corner to atomised individuals with their headsets on, so we may soon see train carriages full of silent, writhing VR contortionists.

VR could be the Walkman, which is obviously massive, but then again Facebook bought Oculus Rift. It may just be a canny tech investment or perhaps they see social potential.

VR is the latest chapter in the story of the camera. It is a story that from the very beginning has involved inventors pushing the technology in new directions and artists showing the creative potential of each innovation. From the first cameras to box Brownies to Polaroids and smartphones, artists took hold of the equipment and said hey, you can do this with it, or this! And we all bought the kit and filled Instagram with our efforts.

Similarly, the potential of VR in documentary, theatre, therapy, teleportation, personalised, portable film viewing or mass immersive social experiences will be realised first in the imagination of creative people like Jayisha, Toby, Nick and Juliet and many, many others.