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In Their Shoes: VR for empathy

Anyone who follows my work in VR will know that I am a firm believer in the idea of Virtual Reality as a tool for creating empathy. Late last year I hosted the special VR for Empathy #CPDinVR event with Sean Gilroy from the BBC as one of the panellists (alongside David Romero from Vive and Dominic Eskofier from NVIDIA). Sean shared with us his powerful autism experience, developed as a part of the BBC Cape initiative. This stunning 360 video recreates the experience of being autisitic and is based on the real-life experiences of a lady that works with Sean at the BBC. Since then I have regularly referenced this experience as a clear case for VR as an “empathy machine”, to borrow a phrase from Chris Milk. It is both beautiful and terrifying and I have never felt a deeper understanding for the way autistic people can view the world than I have since viewing the film.

For those that may not have seen it, take a look:

VR is a truly unique form of media in the way that it subverts the natural role of the director/ photographer/ cinematographer and empowers the user with autonomy. You can choose where to look, what to focus on and how you engage with the media. You can also step into the shoes of someone else, walk in them and yes empathise with them. The visceral connection that users can form with VR is what makes it so powerful. It’s why Speilberg refers to it as the next “superdrug” in the most recent Ready Player One trailer. It’s quite telling when probably the most famous film director of all time recognises this fledgling form of media has so much power.

Of course to quote Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We can harness the power of VR to help others understand and appreciate the plight of others, the problems of society and the differences that should bring us together rather than segregate us. This the exact reason why Mark Zuckerberg’s recent demo of Facebook Spaces caught so much flak from the press – it did not embrace the power of VR to create empathy but rather attempted to harness it in what was essentially a marketing stunt.

The BBC Cape film is one example of a true work of art within the field of Empathetic VR. Let’s take a look at some more.

The Party

Shortly after the BBC’s film debuted, The Guardian released a 360 autism experience of their own. The Party is staged differently as the 16 year-old narrator explains the emotions she is experiencing during the preparation for a party. Personally I felt that this distracted from the experience somewhat but it is nonetheless a worthy watch and provides some meaningful insights into the inner-stress experienced by the young girl.

6x9 and Solitary Confinement

6x9 is another one from The Guardian and again the use of narration does distract from the immersion a touch. Nonetheless this provides a unique experience of life inside a prison’s solitary confinement cell.

There are actually two ways to access this experience – the 360 video which is embedded above and a full experience can be downloaded on various VR platforms from here.

I’d also like to highlight a comparable 360 experience from RYOT called Solitary Confinement. This one also uses voice-over (I guess this type of experience does need some framing) and includes some interesting testimony from ex-prisoners who have lived through this type of containment.

Clouds Over Sidra

Chris Milk’s acclaimed Clouds Over Sidra is probably one of the most well-known and respected pieces of 360 film-making yet produced. This remarkable film spotlights the children of The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Syria and is essential viewing:

Just as Chris’ “Ultimate Empathy Machine” statement during his TEDx presentation was vilified as superlative and erroneous, Clouds Over Sidra and other empathetic experiences often faces a similar backlash. One such comment on the YouTube page for Clouds Over Sidra reads “Sadly you never know what it's like to live in someone else's shoes until you live it.” Surely this is the point of this type of experience – to allow someone who will NEVER live it to gain a better understanding, a first-person perspective. This is VIRTUAL reality after all. The aim is to allow someone to experience life as someone else does – not become them. I will never be autistic, but Sean and Leena’s film has certainly allowed me to understand what it is like with greater clarity and will inform my interaction with any autistic people that I meet for the rest of my life.

Whilst Clouds Over Sidra is available on Chris Milk’s Within platform, it was produced in conjunction with the UN and several other powerful documentary films are available via the UNVR initiative.

Equal Reality

I recently got test to the beta version of Equal Reality. This experience is designed to help people identify unconscious bias in the workplace. It does this by literally transposing you into the body of others. Facing a wall of mirrors, you can step in front of each to see your avatar switch gender, age, sit in a wheelchair and more.

Right now only the female and wheelchair experiences are available and once one is selected you enter a virtual scenario wherein you are tasked with identifying the use of negative language or bias towards you. Upon completion you can analyse how you did and even request a report. I’ll be very interested to see if this type of simulation is used in the future as a part of regular employee screenings and potentially even the interview process.

The Wall

An interesting one right here. This project by USA Today seeks to explore issues around the American border through a range of media including a recently released app for the Vive. The app allows people to experience the various issues at the Southern border that intertwined with the politics surrounding debates on immigration. It’s a fantastic example of “see for yourself” before you comment (or vote…)

You can learn more about The Wall here. It's available for download via Viveport

That Dragon, Cancer

A 90 minute narrative journey with the Green family through the ordeal of discovering that their son Joel has cancer and the subsequent 4 year battle with it.

Award-winning and rightly so, That Dragon, Cancer is quite possibly the most emotive experience of virtual reality storytelling currently available. Using a mixture of perspectives, authentic audio from Green family home videos and more, this experience has a powerful effect on most everyone that goes through it. There’s are numerous recordings of playthroughs on YouTube with the hosts often being visibly reduced to tears as they play with the avatar of Joel. You will have noticed in the clip above that the app uses a blank face approach to the avatars. It’s a clever approach since not only does it sidestep the potential for feelings of exploitation (NB the family were involved with the project and see it as a memoir) but the blank faces give the characters an “everyman” quality. This actually feeds into the empathy of the scenario as you immerse in the story and begin to feel like part of this brave family.

I Am a Man

Followers of the site will know that I am a huge fan of using VR for time travel and learning about the past – so how about a little historical empathy? This new experience from NC State University professor Derek Ham transports users back to 60s Memphis and explores the issues around the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King. Imagine placing students on the streets, in the shoes of persecution during the height of the problem? What a stunning example of immersive, emotive learning. Take a look:

“I Am A Man” will be hosted at the National Civil Right Museum from April and will then be available from the Oculus Store shortly thereafter.

Becoming Homeless

Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have been doing some stellar work in the field of immersive, empathetic VR experiences. One that caught the media’s attention last year was Becoming Homeless. This experience aims to open people’s eyes to the issue of homelessness. After various test runs and events, it is being released openly via Steam VR next week. I plan to let some of our Sixth Form students go through the experience. It will be interesting to see how the expat children of Dubai react to it…

#VR #empathy

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