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All Immersive Experiences

Empathy in Virtual Reality

Chris Milk argues in his TED talk that virtual reality is an unparalleled tool for creating real-world empathy. His 360º videos (which were presented in virtual reality, though I disagree that that’s synonymous with the entire medium of virtual reality) showing the lives of people in the Global South to powerful people in the North may be emotionally impactful, but they cannot create true empathy, as Erick Ramirez argues for Aeon. Tugging the heartstrings of power brokers with new technology is not an effective long-term strategy to change our political course.

”Wherever you go, there you are” is a phrase my dad has frequently repeated to me. Virtual reality—especially 360º video—is only a partial replacement for “going.” While it’s faster & cheaper to watch than go somewhere faraway, it’s not better (or even as good) except if the viewer wouldn’t have attempted to go in the first place without it. We can’t get so caught up in the technology that we forget that. Seeing a different environment doesn’t make us different people; as viewers we continue to enter the virtual landscapes as ourselves and respond the way we would if we were physically there. While the outward perspective can be different in VR, the inward one remains the same. If touring a war zone in person doesn’t inspire warmongers to stop war, seeing a lower-resolution version on a VR headset won’t influence their ideology any more.

If it’s not the ultimate empathy machine, when should we reach for virtual reality as storytellers? Virtual reality can communicate scale far better than limited screen sizes can. 360º video is not teleportation, but it’s a first step, and showing environments we’d never get to see otherwise is valuable to inspire conservation. Simulated worlds, or worlds that respond to the viewer’s actions, can create guided storytelling experiences not possible with traditional film, and give viewers more ownership over what they walk away with.