VR Isn’t An Empathy Machine

It’s time we all got over it.

Lucie Heath
Oct 31, 2017 · 5 min read
by Luke Ekul

Art and technology have always been used to raise political awareness and inspire the activism of generations. In the 1930s, Picasso’s Guernica brought worldwide attention to the atrocities being committed during the Spanish Civil War. In the 1960s, Vietnam was dubbed the ‘First Television War’ after broadcasts from the battlefield helped sway American public opinion against the horrific conflict.

Yet now in 2017 — the era of 24-hour news channels and the five-second Snapchat — capturing the attention of an increasingly distracted audience is proving for NGOs quite difficult. Luckily, however, the latest offering from the world of tech is promising a solution to this problem. Enter VR: the 360 immersive film experience poised to combat apathy and elicit empathy from our fickle, oversaturated millennial minds.

Well at least that’s what the industry wants you to think. The concept that VR can work as an ‘empathy machine’ dates back to a now infamous 2015 Ted Talk by VR filmmaker Chris Milk. Milk was using the platform to launch Clouds Over Sidra, the first in a series of VR shorts created by the UN highlighting various humanitarian crises. Milk didn’t mince his works when describing the emotive impact of the piece, concluding that the 360 experience has the ability to make us more compassionate, more empathetic and ultimately, more human.

“Enter VR: the 360 immersive film experience poised to combat apathy and elicit empathy from our fickle, oversaturated millennial minds.”

Fast forward two years and the internet is filled with VR videos ranging in all topics from refugees to coral reefs. Alongside each comes a barrage of articles about the ‘radical potential’ of VR technology. Intrigued by the hype and seduced by Milk’s promise to ‘become more human’, I decided to embark on my first ever voyage into virtual reality by spending an entire day watching as many activism-oriented shorts as I could find.

I decided to start with Clouds Over Sidra, the story of a young female refugee living in Jordan and the topic of Chris Milk’s hyperbole. For those of you who are yet to experience virtual reality, it’s hard to underestimate the impact of that first time you don the VR headset. For the next 9 minutes I was transported to Sidra’s world where I became transfixed by my new reality, fascinated by any slight movement and erratically jutting my head so as not to miss an inch of the action.

Watching a 360 movie is certainly different to watching a regular film. Not having to depend on a single-lens viewpoint means each documentary has a fly-on-the-wall feel. This made me feel like I had a more privileged, behind-the-scenes perspective on Sidra’s life. Moreover, the fact that the filmmakers had my complete, unbridled attention for almost ten minutes — practically a lifetime in our age of modern communication — meant they were able to pace the piece much slower than they would normally. Ironically, our most modern technology becomes the perfect medium through which to broadcast the mundanities of the everyday.

Nevertheless, as I spent my afternoon digging through the mountains of charity-produced VR videos to be discovered online, I found myself asking whether the experience increased my feelings of empathy towards each cause. While I may gain a better understanding of what it looks like in refugee camp or a West African village, does a perceived proximity to a person necessarily equate to an increase in empathy? I have already read heart-wrenching accounts and been confronted with horrific images from these devastating humanitarian crises. What is it about seeing them in 360 that is supposed to make me feel more than I already do?

“While I may gain a better understanding of what it looks like in refugee camp or a West African village, does a perceived proximity to a person necessarily equate to an increase in empathy?”

While the technology may be pretty damn cool, I still feel a million miles away from the people in these documentaries. In none of journalistic videos I watched does the subject interact with me as the viewer, nor did my presence ever impact on the action. This means that instead of feeling like an active participant, I adopt an almost God-like observer role. As a result, all the usual obstacles that NGOs face when attempting to elicit empathy — cultural divisions, increasing apathy due to an overexposure to international conflicts — still exist in the world of VR. I would be lying if I said the impact of the documentaries didn’t decrease exponentially on me each time I put on the headset.

After a couple of hours inside the so-called ‘empathy machine’ my initial wonder at the technology slowly dissolved into a feeling of disappointment. In the two years since Chris Milk’s industry-defining Ted Talk it seemed to me like the VR technology had, at least in this context, struggled to transform itself from cool gimmick into something that brings real value to our society. In order to move forward, VR filmmakers and NGOs need to stop relying on the technology alone to pack the punch. It’s time to start developing ways of storytelling that are specific to the medium and utilises it to it’s full potential.

It seems like some positive developments are already starting to happen on this front. My final VR experience of the day was The Protectors, a 2017 Kathryn Bigelow directed short about rangers working in the Congo. Bigelow’s documentary had a couple of standout moments. The most notable being a long shot of a slaughtered elephant with the tusks sawn off it’s face, made infinitely more disturbing when viewed through a VR headset that makes it impossible to turn away. The impact this moment had on me restored my faith in the potential of VR to create stories that can move us in new and unique ways.

“It’s time to start developing ways of storytelling that are specific to the medium and utilises it to it’s full potential.”

While The Protectors represented a glimmer of hope amongst a day of uninspiring shorts, I think it’s time that the VR industry — as well as the thousands of us that write about it — got over our obsession with empathy. Empathy isn’t the natural consequence of 360 immersion, nor should it be the only goal of good VR filmmaking. While art and technology have been used throughout history to inspire and motivate generations, never before has the value of a piece of technology been so rigidly assessed on its ability to make us feel something. Yes this means that VR probably isn’t going to single handedly solve the problem of millennial apathy or make us generally more compassionate beings. Yet the sooner the industry breaks free from this idea, the sooner the true potential of this storytelling medium can be discovered.

Lucie Heath

Written by

Interactive Journalism student with an interest in data, housing and local issues 👩‍💻 Follow me: twitter.com/luciemheath

DangerousTech

Disruption matters.

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