You’re walking through the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, brushing aside long grass, letting the sweat drip from your forehead and into your eyes because you don’t want to stop to wipe it off. You survey the wide-open plains. A shot rings out, and you hit the ground. Another shot, this one closer. You’re vulnerable, your Jeep kilometers away. There are only 140 of you protecting a park the size of Delaware from poachers who will do anything, including kill you, to shoot endangered elephants and saw off their ivory tusks. Nineteen of your coworkers have been killed in the line of duty in the past decade. You know your chances of death are high. “I know that this is a dangerous job,” you say, “but if I get killed, my wife and the park will be proud of me.”
The helmet comes off and you’re you again. For eight minutes, you were experiencing Kathryn Bigelow’s documentary short “The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes,” inhabiting the life of a young African park ranger protecting a wildlife sanctuary. Now you’re in New York, standing in the Tribeca Film Festival, watching as those around you pull off their Oculus Rifts and return to reality. As you walk out of the festival, you’re asked to donate to anti-poaching efforts. You do.
Virtual reality can take you from the depths of the Mariana Trench to the heights of Mount Everest. It’s poised to revolutionize everything from entertainment to business; and yet, perhaps the greatest challenge associated with V.R. still remains: How else might we use it, and how might we use it better? Thus far, V.R. has largely been used for some form of productivity—letting a surgeon remotely control robots or a C.E.O. conduct virtual business meetings, allowing for shared gaming experiences or expanding the world of movies and storytelling. But what if V.R. could be used to not only change the way we see but also transform how we think?
Bigelow, who directed “The Protectors,” said she shot it in V.R. for one reason: “empathy.” Likewise, Alejandro Iñárritu’s six-and-a-half-minute V.R. documentary “CARNE y ARENA,” a special installation at the Fondazione Prada this season, provides an up-close look at the horrific plight of immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. Iñárritu says his intention with the film was to depict the human condition in a way that’s impossible with standard cinema, and V.R., he said in a statement, allowed him to provide “a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.” Some call this use of technology to hearken to our most primal emotions mind control, others call it a communications breakthrough.
The history of V.R. shows that the technology has long been gearing up for an empathy breakthrough. In the 80s, Jaron Lanier first coined the term “virtual reality,” defining it as a “post-symbolic communication” in which you have a “collaboration that you really can’t have with symbols, where people can be simultaneously molding a shared reality.” Two years ago, the V.R. filmmaker Chris Milk, known for his collaborations with director Spike Jonze, the movie producer Megan Ellison, and Kanye West, took the term a step further, calling the tool “the ultimate empathy machine.” He suggested that if there was a single grounding principle of virtual reality it was how we could use it “to make experiences that are meaningful to other human beings and bring people closer to one another.”
Between the ways that V.R. is able to alter everything from gaming to medicine, pornography to business, its potential for empathy is the most radical. To allow humans to connect with one another—no matter their geography or circumstance—would be perhaps the most important communication breakthrough in history. Unlike the telephone or even Skype, V.R. dangles the possibility of not just communicating with someone but momentarily inhabiting another’s life—and, in doing so, understanding that person with a depth far beyond what a typical back-and-forth allows.
According to Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, V.R. technology has reached a point where people essentially behave in virtual reality experiences just as they do in real life. “There’s a long line of research about social presence in V.R. that suggests that we tend to treat digital representations more or less as we would real people,” he says. “In fact, even the mere belief that you are interacting with a real-time representation of another human makes you behave differently than you would if you were interacting with a computer algorithm.”
“To allow humans to connect with one another—no matter their geography or circumstance—would be perhaps the most important communication breakthrough in history.”
Bailenson’s lab in Palo Alto, California, is in the vanguard of virtual reality and empathy. He runs a carnival of experiments, including ones that induce the feeling of being evicted and becoming homeless, disability simulations in which participants are blinded or otherwise disabled, a “minority mirror” in which individuals don a different gender or race, and a situation where the participant is made to feel schizophrenic with the use of intrusive sounds and hallucinatory images. “Across dozens of studies, a pattern emerges,” Bailenson says. When it comes to evoking empathy, “V.R. tends to be a more effective tool than other media and role-playing techniques.”
In the lab’s eviction simulation, for instance, you find yourself on a city bus. You’re desperately poor, without a home, and you’re looking at your few belongings while trying to ward off a creepy passenger who’s sitting next to you. As you look at the passenger, your belongings move further away; but, as you look at your belongings, the passenger approaches. While Bigelow’s V.R. documentary inserts you in a cinema-quality situation where you’re scared for your life while protecting a park from poachers, Bailenson’s experiment provides a low-fidelity scenario where even your most basic needs—protecting your belongings and yourself—have become near-impossible. The idea, in both situations, is to generate empathy toward the lives that you’re virtually inhabiting—the literal version of putting yourself in another’s shoes.
Still, in both scenarios, you get to take off your helmet and return to normal. You are not really in mortal danger in an African wildlife reserve; you are not really homeless and desperate on a city bus. This will—likely forever—be one of the key issues with creating empathy via V.R. How much empathy can “the empathy machine” actually create?
For Nonny de la Peña, a research fellow at the University of Southern California and a pioneer of V.R. journalism, there are limitations to empathy in any medium, but virtual reality stands apart because it has the fewest barriers. Her video “After Solitary,” which won a South By Southwest Jury Award, used photogrammetry to place the viewer inside an accurately detailed jail cell in Maine. “When you are inside the cell you feel confined—it’s as close as you can get,” she says. But you are still aware of your real self. You are not so completely swept up in the virtual world that you are able to fully shed yourself and become a prisoner. “You know your real beliefs,” she admits. “There’s no way of getting away from that.”
As with V.R., other media like literature, theatre, and film are also all adept at eliciting a common feeling: sympathy. In “The Poetics,” Aristotle wrote that the best stories provide an emotional catharsis in which the audience is drawn into mutual understanding with the characters. Through a character’s tragedy, the audience is made to feel something.
But what would it mean to transcend sympathy and land in the realm of empathy?
Empathy is a difficult emotion to define, but, in its most basic form, it means understanding another person’s situation from his or her perspective. Empathy is antithetical to our increasingly individualized world, but it is a hallmark of stable, cohesive societies. To care for another person—not for what he or she can do for you but because you understand that his or her existence and difficulties are as valid as your own—is the cornerstone of a strong society. The sociologist Émile Durkheim called it the fabric of “the collective consciousness.” Only when members of a society are willing to engage in empathy (understanding someone’s plight) not just sympathy (feeling bad for someone’s plight) can a society achieve equality.
So how does V.R. do that exactly? How does a mask that you strap onto your face begin to convince you to engage in one of the most elusive, important emotions known to mankind? First, it’s important to look at what separates V.R. from other narrative media. For Milk, it’s V.R.’s ability to create shared experiences. “The shared experiences we have within our lives are not authored; they just happen to us,” he says. “Where virtual reality really comes alive as an artistic medium is where you use it to craft shared experiences within stories.”
Unlike more traditional forms of media—like literature, where you’re asked to imagine scenarios, or film, where there are visual references—in V.R., you’re not only given context, you’re also immediately placed within the action. There’s no need to identify with anyone in order to connect to the narrative. You’re already there. Even slapdash visual quality isn’t enough to take you out of a V.R. experience. “It’s not the visual fidelity that’s so crucial,” says de la Peña. “If their hand clips through their thigh, that’ll take you right out; but they can have club hands and that won’t take you out.” What’s crucial, she says, is “behavioral realism. That’s what can create the empathy connection.”
“To feel empathetic requires something different: the ability to fully understand the feelings and the full experience—to not just appreciate the scariness or risk that he or she takes every day, but to feel that risk and embody it.”
That’s to say, so long as it’s passably well designed, once you’re in a V.R. experience you will automatically feel a part of the story. There’s a physicality to it. And there’s a psychological connection to the situation that takes little effort. Unlike in books or movies, your brain has enough information that there’s no gap between consuming the media and relating to it.
The potential this poses cannot be understated. If, for instance, you were to distribute a pamphlet on the plight of Syrian refugees living in Jordan, most people would tend to have trouble connecting to the refugees’ situation. But, if you showed them Milk’s “Clouds Over Sidra,” a short V.R. film about a 12-year-old Syrian girl who lives in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, which he released in coordination with the United Nations, they would immediately get to see the refugee situation virtually first-hand.
“We can’t bring donors or people to the field,” says Cathe Neukum, the executive producer of the International Rescue Committee. But with V.R., “we bring the field to [them].” After the release of “Clouds Over Sidra” at a pledging conference at the U.N., humanitarian donations reached $3.8 billion, well over the projected $2.3 billion.
And yet, when it comes to feeling empathy, no amount of virtual reality can make up for the full context of experience. You cannot truly understand the full struggle that is being a 12-year-old refugee by walking around in a virtual environment for a few minutes because you’re not instilled with the same anxiety, fear, and crippling stress of having lived that existence for your entire life—of having had to escape a regime that barrel bombs its own people, of having had to set up a new life in a dirty, tented city. The torture victim, the rape victim, the refugee—their experiences can only truly be understood by those who have lived the same reality.
Perhaps this lack of true context—the sustained control we hold in V.R. experiences—explains why no medium has yet to fully evoke empathy. Sympathy is relatively easy to elicit. While you virtually walk through Garamba National Park, you feel fortunate that you’re not tasked with protecting endangered elephants from poachers with your own life. You may very well feel bad for how hard the rangers have it. But to feel empathetic requires something different: the ability to fully understand the feelings and the full experience of the ranger—to not just appreciate the scariness or risk that he or she takes every day, but to feel that risk and embody it.
In mediated experiences, the feeling is not quite the same. You can always put the book down, turn off the movie, or take off the helmet. True empathy, even in something as sophisticated and full of potential as V.R., isn’t yet possible since you can always return from the virtual to the real.
And yet, V.R. has the potential to allow us to witness these experiences—if only for a moment and while under our control—in a way that no other medium can.