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13.09. – 15.09.2018. / The Exhibition Open till 21.10.2018

The National Library of Latvia, Conference Center


VR is an empathy switch.




Virtual reality - as commonly understood - is an interactive 3D experience inhabiting a computer-generated environment.  Similar to film, VR incorporates video and audio, but can also feature haptic or aromatic sensations.


VR is different to film in the mode of experience.  The medium allows the viewer to select their perspective - whether from the eyes of another person or gazing into the sky above.  A further key difference is the feeling of “being there” - often called “presence”. This feeling of presence - complemented with the sensation that events are truly occurring - allows the viewer to become an “actor” within a particular film or story.


In recent years, we have become increasingly dependent on electronic devices.  We never release our smartphones from our hands. Notwithstanding this digital embrace, VR is still not widespread for several reasons.  These include the persistent high price of headsets, their cumbersome size, technical operational difficulties, as well as the lack of practical functions presently offered by VR to aid us in our daily lives.


However, VR still has one critical feature to offer - total immersion.  A number of studies confirm that VR evokes strong, physical, emotional reactions.  I am interested in a particular psychological mechanism that VR can trigger - empathy.  A deeply complex response, the ability to empathize is one of our essential human qualities.




Below, I wish to describe some examples of VR projects intended to elicit an empathic reaction. They differ on the scale of production, range of audience, theme, and place of display.















Nony De la Peña’s 2012 project Hunger in LA focuses on the growing problem of hunger in the US.  A VR headset allows viewers to eyewitness an accident in a food bank queue at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, where a man falls into a diabetic coma while waiting.  The simulation is based on seven minutes of unedited real time audio, recorded during the actual incident.


Although the CGI is of poor quality, its combination with original sound makes for a grippingly realistic tableau.  Viewers have reported that the experience triggers visceral emotional responses and feelings of empathy.


Says Nonny de la Peña: "At the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, viewers of the piece tried to touch non-existent characters and many cried at the conclusion".  De la Peña refers to her work as “immersive journalism”, which she defines as "the use of virtual reality and 3D environments, built in a gaming platform, to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of news."  She further believes that immersive storytelling is the future of reporting and will play a critical role in engaging the next generation in the news.














Clouds Over Sidra was created to support a UN call to build resilience in vulnerable refugee communities.  The aim was to use the medium of VR to generate empathy for displaced Syrians and turn a spotlight upon people living in conditions of great vulnerability.  The authors (Gabo Arora and Chris Milk) said, “its powerful capacity to allow anyone on a global scale to experience life within a refugee camp has the ability to inspire a message of hope among not only the millions displaced but also those motivated to act.”


The film has been widely employed in the UN’s advocacy work for the Syrian crisis.  It was spread virally online, as well as being screened at a high-level donor meeting prior to the Third International Humanitarian Appeal for Syria in Kuwait in March 2015, which eventually raised 3.8 billion US dollars.



Another example is an artistic project shown at an exhibition in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City in 2017.


Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence is a VR film where we witness the artist engaged in an act of unexplained aggression.  Wolfson is interested in force as a rupture or distortion of our everyday consciousness.  In broad daylight, we witness a person attacked and killed in front of our eyes. Some viewers have said that the artwork is “indigestible” or “objectionable”.  Although the figures in the film are real, all the attendant violence is achieved through CGI manipulation. This video poses several questions. What would we do if we were to witness such an incident in real life?  Would we run away, try to help, or observe indifferently? Do we still possess a social conscience or have we retreated into lazy isolation?





















The presence of VR in social media


Facebook developers are constantly interested in innovation, hence their investment in VR and the purchase of Oculus in 2014.  Mark Zuckerberg recently donned an Oculus headset and used Facebook’s new VR platform, Facebook Spaces, to visit a post-hurricane Puerto Rico, the Moon, and finally his house in Palo Alto, California - all the time streaming his ‘digital odyssey’ with his 118m followers.


Facebook Spaces advertises the opportunity to gain virtual access to the inaccessible e.g. the location of natural disasters.  Mark Zuckerberg says:
























Some users question the good intentions of Facebook in developing VR, which we can see in the negative comments below the video.  When mentioning Facebook, it’s important to think about data collection and privacy. To play in the world of VR, we have to be prepared to share some personal data.  For instance, Oculus collects information continuously while we are connected to their service. Devices and apps always require our agreement to a privacy policy, although users rarely read the small print, merely scrolling down and ticking the right box.  We should be made fully aware and informed of what data we are sharing with VR devices.


As we can read in the agreement above, we agree to provide Oculus with voluminous personal information concerning inter alia our behaviour, movements, physical measurements, location, and even the direction we are looking.  Thus, VR/AR systems can harvest our personal data with ruthless impunity, while we inhabit a kaleidoscopic world with ovine complacency, lulled into distraction while our personal integrity is compromised.

For instance: VR headsets fitted with live mics can record conversations, inside-out tracking systems can record video of users’ private homes, and eye-tracking technology can record what a person is looking at.  The company behind the eye-tracking technology - Tobii - states that data gathered from tracking VR users' eye movements provides design engineers with further insight into the user experience for product development and training.


We should consider whether the costs of sharing private biometric data with corporate behemoths outweigh the benefits.



People continue to create new tools; innovative devices that seamlessly integrate with our lives, blurring the line between the apparatus and the body.  Interfaces are created to help viewers to become more integrated within a narrative. However, those tools may also affect our social interactions outside the digital medium.


The 21st century has seen the appearance of VR technology, which has the power to affect our very modes of cognition - our mechanisms of learning, feeling, and seeing.  As the physical and the virtual begin to merge, we are challenged by insistent questions about the nature of matter and consciousness.


VR is a tool that can evoke searing emotions in the user, such as fear, excitement or anger.  It can also elicit the subtler reaction of empathy. Beyond the myriad opportunities that VR promises, we should remain vigilant of the darker potentials of mass manipulation and the wholesale cataloguing of our personal data.  We stand on the threshold of a virtual brave new world.

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