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“My name is Sidra”: how virtual reality could combat compassion fatigue

We look away from the suffering in humanitarian crises because it’s so vast. Virtual reality invites us to look at individuals’ experiences again.

In a 2015 Ted talk, artist and filmmaker Chris Milk argues that virtual reality can be “the ultimate empathy machine”. His virtual reality company, Vrse.works, has worked with the UN to produce a series of short virtual reality documentaries about the challenges facing mankind, from the Syrian refugee crisis to climate change.

“Virtual reality” refers to film-like experiences which attempt to replicate the real world. This could mean through the introduction of smells along with sight and sound, or the more common use of stereoscopy glasses or goggles to create an illusion of depth. Often, the viewer can interact in some way with the content of the film. 

The first UN virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra, is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Sidra, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan.  It’s beautifully produced and scored: the viewer moves through the rooms of Sidra’s temporary home, and using online controls we can follow her baby brother as he runs across the floor or look more closely at the family's sparse possessions. Sidra shows us around her school and the camp gym, where men work out, she thinks, “just to look good in the mirror”. We gradually learn of the horrors that have befallen her family as we walk through her world with her.

The aim of these films is to make us care about these crises on a deep, personal level. We know instinctively that it’s easier to emote with a single person than a faceless crowd of thousands, and this tactic takes that idea to its extreme: VR places you next to the person you could help with your donations, and allows you to directly engage by "walking" around the film yourself. The near-banality of Sidra’s film is its strength: the balance of dark and light in her life is easier to understand than a montage of outright misery, because it more closely mirrors our own.

Compassion fatigue is the subconscious decision to look away, because human suffering is so vast and horrifying. Virtual reality invites you to look around, to move deeper inside the crisis. You are literally, as Milk puts it, “inside the frame”.

As he explains in his Ted talk:

“You’re sitting on the same ground as [Sidra]. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathise with her in a deeper way.  I think that we can change minds with this machine”.

It is possible that he already has. The film was shown at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last January, to people who, as Milk describes it, “wouldn’t otherwise be sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan”. As a result, it was also shown at the Humanitarian Pledging conference for Syria later that year, where $3.8bn was raised to tackle the crisis. Gabo Arora, a senior UN advisor, told development website Devex that the film was a “key reason” that the event generated far more than the $2.3bn originally expected.

An empathy machine?

The UN series is unquestionably affecting, and, hopefully, effective, but it’s not clear yet whether virtual reality really is better at making us emote than other types of media.

One study has tried to pin this down, to some surprising results. “Through the Eyes of a Bystander: Understanding VR and Video Effectiveness on Bystander Empathy, Presence, Behavior, and Attitude in Bullying Situations”, a 2015 study carried out by researchers at Virginia Tech, placed participants as bystanders in a bullying scenario. There were three different environments; two virtual reality, one video.

Responses to the three were very similar, except on a single metric: empathy. Surprisingly, participants in the virtual reality scenarios (which used graphics rather than filming) had less empathy for the victim than in a normal video.

The researchers weren’t 100 per cent sure which elements of virtual reality led to the lower empathy levels, but they hypothesise that we relate strongly to things that look “real”, as opposed to virtual scenarios which simply have a 360-degree purview. Therefore, they write, “findings here suggest that photorealistic graphics should be used in VR simulations to evoke empathy”.

Perhaps the best way to think about it is to imagine media as a spectrum, where at one end is a static line drawing and at the other is real experience. We’re more likely to relate to media products on the latter end of the spectrum, such as live-action films, especially in 3D.

Therefore, while it hasn’t been tested in a comparable study, the extension of this logic is that UN style of live-action virtual reality (achieved using 360 degree cameras) could evoke even more empathy than both live-action films, or virtual reality using graphics.

For now, we're left with Milk’s promise that VR “connects humans to humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. It can change peoples’ perception of each other. VR has the potential to actually change the world.”

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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French presidential election: Macron and Le Pen projected to reach run-off

The centrist former economy minister and the far-right leader are set to contest the run-off on May 7.

Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen will contest the run-off of the French presidential election, according to the first official projection of the first round result.

Macron, the maverick former economy minister running under the banner of his centrist En Marche! movement, is projected to finish first with an estimated 23.7 per cent of the vote, putting him marginally ahead of Le Pen. The leader of the far-right Front National is estimated to have won 21.7 per cent, with the scandal-hit Republican Francois Fillon and leftwing Jean-Luc Melenchon tied for third on an estimated 19.5 per cent each. Benoit Hamon, of the governing socialist party, is set to finish a distant fourth on just 6.2 per cent. Pollsters Ifop project a turnout of around 81 per cent, slightly up on 2012.

Macron and Le Pen will now likely advance to the run-off on May 7. Recent polling has consistently indicated that Macron, who at 39 would be the youngest candidate ever to win the French presidency, would likely beat Le Pen with around 60 per cent of the vote to her 40. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement he told AFP that his En Marche! were "turning a page in French political history", and went on to say his candidacy has fundamentally realigned French politics. "To all those who have accompanied me since April 2016, in founding and bringing En Marche! to life, I would like to say this," he told supporters. "In the space of a year, we have changed the face of French political life."

Le Pen similarly hailed a "historic" result. In a speech peppered with anti-establishment rhetoric, she said: "The first step that should lead the French people to the l’Elysée has been taken. This is a historic result.

"It is also an act of French pride, the act of a people lifting their heads. It will have escaped no one that the system tried by every means possible to stifle the great political debate that must now take place. The French people now have a very simple choice: either we continue on the path to complete deregulation, or you choose France.

"You now have the chance to choose real change. This is what I propose: real change. It is time to liberate the French nation from arrogant elites who want to dictate how it must behave. Because yes, I am the candidate of the people."

The projected result means the run-off will be contested by two candidates outside of the France's establishment left and right parties for the first time in French political history. Should Le Pen advance to the second round as projected it will mark only the second time a candidate from her party will have reached the run-off. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reached the second round in 2002, but was decisively beaten by Jacques Chirac after left-wingers and other mainstream voters coalesced in a so-called front républicain to defeat the far-right.

Fillon has conceded defeat and backed Macron, as have Hamon and French prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve. "We have to choose what is best for our country," Fillon said. "Abstention is not in my genes, above all when an extremist party is close to power. The Front National is well known for its violence and its intolerance, and its programme would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos.

"Extremism can can only bring unhappiness and division to France. There is no other choice than to vote against the far right. I will vote for Emmanuel Macron. I consider it my duty to tell you this frankly. It is up to you to reflect on what is best for your country, and for your children."

Though Hamon acknowledged the favourite - a former investment banker - was no left-winger, he said: "I make a distinction between a political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."

Melenchon, however, has refused to endorse Macron, and urged voters to consult their own consciences ahead of next month's run-off.

The announcement sparked ugly scenes in Paris' Place de la Bastille, where riot police have deployed tear gas on crowds gathered to protest Le Pen's second-place finish. Reaction from the markets was decidedly warmer: the Euro hit a five-month high after the projection was announced.

Now read Pauline Bock on the candidate most likely to win, and the NS' profiles of Macron and Le Pen.


Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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