VR Diaries: Immersion and Engagement Equals Empathy in VR Storytelling

Reflecting upon my virtual reality experience through the six narratives I watched (“Fight for Falluja,” “Clouds Over Sidra,” “Zambia Gift of Mobility,” “Project Syria,” “6x9” and “Pearl Harbor”), my favorite pieces were ones that succeeded in fostering immersion and empathy, in which I felt fully engaged. The stories that immediately come to mind are “Fight for Falluja,” “Clouds Over Sidra” and “6x9” — those were my three favorites.

These were effective over the others because they catered to personal and emotional appeal through meaningful interviews. I wanted to reach out and speak to the characters because I felt like I was really there, even if just for a few moments. In “6x9,” although I never saw the faces of any of the voices, I still felt a connection, which shows that there are various ways of utilizing interviews in a piece.

What especially pulled my heart strings was the woman at the Falluja refugee camp who shared how fortunate she was to be in a safe place — this safe place living outside in the 120 degree-weather. In addition, Sidra narrating in “Clouds Over Sidra” as a 12-year-old girl and refugee was genius. A child made the piece all the more genuine, humanizing and honest. It’s almost refreshing, in this case, to get to hear about what her daily life is like, focusing on “simple” aspects, like what sport she likes to play or how much she enjoys her mother’s cooking. These little details are what transformed my sympathy into empathy, and steered my feelings toward how I felt about her and the other refugees in a new light.

Overall, from viewing all of these VR pieces, I learned that a VR experience through a headset makes a world’s difference than just playing that same VR piece online in a web browser. It is almost like an out-of-body experience in some cases. No matter how much I liked or disliked the storytelling techniques in each piece, every time I took off the gear, I would have to adjust back to the classroom setting I was actually sitting in the entire time. I felt real emotion, whether it was for Sidra or someone in solitary confinement, and that was what turned what was just a few minutes in a headset into a meaningful experience.

The practices I best suggest are again, powerful interviews. If one decides to narrate the story from an outside perspective, like from a journalist’s point of view, carefully choose your tone of voice. In “Fight for Falluja,” the narrator’s voice was calming yet serious, keeping the audience’s focus on the experience rather than trying to persuade sentiments or opinions in a certain direction. “Zambia: Gift of Mobility” did this. The narrator’s voice was very much like a typical broadcast-package tone where the reporter sounded sympathetic, almost as if she felt bad and wanted you to feel bad, too, but not on your own terms.

Another practice I’d recommend is to have moments of silence, or to not move too quickly from scene to scene. The viewer needs a moment to reflect, and stop and take it all in. The main goal is to keep the audience’s attention, by avoiding any distractions (commercials, too many unnecessary visuals popping up all over the place). It’s nice to not have to constantly be stimulated (although ironically that’s what the point of VR is) and to move your head around, but instead, having the visuals catered to your eye-line so that you feel especially immersed and you forget you’re in a headset. Live-action is also my preferred choice for VR, for it allows you to experience better what it would really be like, instead of viewing a recreation.

Showing multiple perspectives visually is valuable as well. “Zambia: Gift of Mobility” actually did this the best. I was shown what it would be like if I had no working legs, with everyone towering over me, and then a perspective from vice versa.

On the other hand, what reporters should avoid is using broadcast techniques for VR stories. These stories should be told for the audience to decide how they want to feel afterward. You should be directing the viewer subtly.

Conveying information is also key and there is a specific way to do this. Not by lecturing information, but rather, hearing it through the characters and learning from their experience. For example, all the strict rules that were mentioned in “6x9” were conveyed because we were placed in the prisoner’s shoes.

Two other narratives that evoke empathy are:

  1. “Inside Syria” (link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qt-tu7YBTYg): This one evoked empathy in several ways. One, the narrator’s voice was direct without being biased like the journalist in “Fight for Falluja,” where I got to create my own feelings and thoughts about what he was describing. Two, the scenes were still for the right amount of time, so that you could look around and really take everything in while listening to the story being told. Although it was informative without being too irritable, this piece did lack interviews. The journalist also did a straight stand-up where you could see the shadow or the tripod and camera, which bothered me a little bit. But what he did well that “Pearl Harbor” did not, was feed us new facts in a personal way because it felt like we were learning along with him, going on this journey with him, instead of being shown around a “virtual” museum. Even if this piece was more of a broadcast VR package than a VR experience, and despite not hearing from the actual residents of Syria, I still felt some empathy from being able to observe the way in which they live through live action, as they went about with their day-to-day life in a world that is so corrupt.
  2. “The Nepal Quake Project” (link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tasUGQ1898): In this piece, I felt connected immediately from the first moments of the piece, as the score was dramatic and perfectly complemented the narrator’s serious tone of voice, with her words aiding the live footage or the earthquake that she was describing. In this story especially, which I didn’t notice as much in the six VR pieces we watched for class, the music really augmented my empathy, feeling somber and sad, seeing the destroyed homes and hopeless people. They didn’t need to say anything. It was all in their faces. It was almost as if there was an interview in this VR experience, we would be taking their valuable time away from what really matters, trying to restore their village. The audio of the crying baby while hearing that all of the villagers are now living in tents was particularly heartbreaking. And like in ABC’s “Inside Syria,” the scenes were still and remained constant for a long enough time for the viewers to really absorb the disasters in. The story also ended with hope, making us want to take action because we are the hope, the ones who can donate and take action — and this was done so in a way that wasn’t forced, but a choice for us to make. In fact, a choice that we want to make.