In a Ted Talk, Chris Milk calls virtual reality the “ultimate empathy machine” and he is not the only one who has taken note of the possibilities this technology holds; possibilities that non-interactive media such as traditional cinema or fine art cannot offer.
The immigrant experience is one that is a part of most American family stories. Even if neither you nor your parents are first generation Americans, it is likely you identify that your great grandparents emigrated through Ellis Island, or your grandparents fled the Nazis during World War II. It is also likely that, the further back your family members emigrated, the more they are celebrated. When the immigrant is right in front of us, many find it easy enough to look right past them, to turn away from the thought of immigrants and refugees in desperate need of help, or worse, to make America as inhospitable to outsiders as possible.
Artists and creative individuals have always utilized media of various types to attempt to change minds and push cultural progress forward, but is it possible that VR, as a medium, holds more possibility for change than any medium before it? The visionary, Academy Award winning filmmaker, Alejandro González Iñárritu, has recently used the still fairly new technology to tackle one of the most divisive and challenging topics today, and create social change by immersing Americans in the Mexican border-crossing experience. Beyond the purely artistic purposes, how is virtual reality being used to create real, quantifiable social and political change? Well, for starters it is being used very successfully for fundraising by nonprofits, and, most notably, by the United Nations.
Laura Nitz is someone who is exploring the use of VR for social good. Over the course of our talk, she references the UN’s VR initiatives several times, as examples of this technology’s ability to capture donor attention and dollars in a really unique way. A rare type of person to meet nowadays, Nitz says she grew up without videogames. In fact, she never had much interest in VR until she tried a game whose goal was to shoot things with a bow and arrow, something she has experience with in real life.
“It was a weird meta moment,” she says “my skill in real life somehow translated to this game.”
Currently she is a Computer Arts faculty member at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and last year she created a VR experience for her graduate thesis at the Milano School of Public Policy at The New School. The project, View(Points), is less about immersing viewers in an awe-inspiring experience, and more about exploring its potential as a new fundraising tool.
Shot in refugee camps, the final film’s focus is, perhaps surprisingly, not on the refugee experience but on the experience of aid workers and volunteers. Another interesting thing about Nitz’s project, is that a large portion of the film is interviews. When asked about how View(Points) video is different from traditional film, she notes that seeing all parties, rather than just the interviewee, changes the experience. The information transmitted to the viewer is no longer just spoken, but also unspoken. What you may lose by missing facial expressions of interviewees, you gain in facial expression and spatial information from the other side.
It seems that this could be either good or bad, depending on the film’s goals. “It changes people’s focus,” she says, noting that “some people may lose a few details, but they also gain some in other regards.” Nitz is clearly fascinated by VR and AR, but she is not wholly convinced of its ability to change the world. While Nitz admits that there is potential for increased empathy in viewers, she also wonders “how much is just the novelty?” Perhaps nonprofits can’t afford to distinguish the novelty from the empathy. Perhaps, it doesn’t matter, as long as they get the desperately needed funds. Clouds Over Sidra, the UN’s VR experience about a young Syrian refugee in Jordan, helped earn $3.8 billion, almost double the amount expected.
However, when considering all the possibility that VR and AR hold, we can’t forget that it is not always being used for noble purposes. Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus VR headset, and proud Libertarian, has set his sights on using advanced VR and AI technology to build a more cost-effective border wall. Clearly this means there is more to developing empathy than putting on a headset and walking in the shoes of another human for 10 minutes. There is also so much more to these lived experiences than can ever be conveyed through the headset. Even the advanced systems that trigger physiological reactions (Carne y Arena is said to invoke real anxiety and fear) cannot communicate the years of built up loss and sorrow. While immersed in the experience, the participant knows it will be over soon, a comfort that refugees do not have.
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