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.”