In a TED talk, Chris Milk argued that Virtual Reality could be the “ultimate empathy machine” – meaning that the technology will make it possible for people to truly experience the lives of others. With this ability to walk in other people’s shoes readily at their fingertips, could the next generation end up being more socially conscious than any before?
If you’ve ever seen the film Being John Malkovich, you will understand this allure of spending moments in other people’s lives. In that film, people queued up for the chance to live in Malkovich’s brain for just ten minutes. It wasn’t because Malkovich lived the most enviable life, it was because he lived a different life. And the film showed how willing people would be to pay money, just to experience a different life. There was something passively voyeuristic about it.
But is this really how humans would react to being given a snapshot of someone else’s life? What if they were shown something so different that it made them reconsider their own lives? Sometimes there are things we want to learn about that we can’t fully understand without experiencing. Virtual Reality app developers are really tapping into this idea. With the idea that altering a person’s existence for just a few moments, might make the difference to how they act. If you showed them life through a bullying victim’s eyes – they might not bully. Or the effects of deforestation through the eyes of an orangutan – they might change the paper usage policy of their company. Chris Milk calls virtual reality an “empathy machine”, but I would perhaps go one further and call it a “social conscious machine”.
Amnesty International have already created an app to “show people in 360-degree views of what’s actually happening in Syria.” When placed in the devastated city of Aleppo, the viewer is confronted with the reality of the situation which can otherwise seem remote. It’s a way of answering questions about whether refugees can just go home, in a way that does not rely on the sometimes-faulty medium of language. The charity has been using the footage on the streets of London to raise funds for their projects, it also highlights the need for humanitarian aid. Projects like this have proved to be successful. Amnesty says, “there has been a strong and often emotional response from the public and a 16% increase in people signing up to direct debit donations toward Amnesty’s human rights work”.
Chris Milk says in his Ted Talk that people were effected by being placed in VR experience set in Jordan refugee camp. A film his company shot in conjunction with the UN focuses on the life of a twelve year old girl who has fled Syria with her family. As he says, when watching through a headset, “you sit on the same ground that she is sitting on, and because of that you feel her humanity in a deeper way.” It was shown at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, to people with massive power to change the lives of others, and he says they were deeply affected by it.
It isn’t clear what the outcome was of that presentation at the World Economic Forum. Pictures from the event show a sea of grey haired men nodding compassionately, but sometimes older minds are harder to change. They might be less willing to restructure their company around ethics, or to get involved in costly projects. On the other hand, we are witnessing a new generation of young people coming to age, who were born into a world that is becoming less hospitable to prejudice and more socially conscious. This generation are already speaking out on mediums such as YouTube and Tumblr about eradicating the negative judgments on marginalised people. These people are already more active than many before them, owning their own identities and promoting awareness of themselves. Introducing virtual reality experiences of life in other people’s shoes might be a way to tap all this energy into something truly constructive.
In the future, we won’t just be talking about ourselves and our own experiences. We will be living other lives, if only for a moment. Narratives that have fallen by the wayside in traditional media, like that of the refugee, are finding a new audience. With virtual reality technology becoming mainstream, it won’t be long until some narratives will be able to tell themselves. The result will be a growing awareness, and empathy. This kind of mindfulness may very well end up in more action, and more socially conscious business practices in the long run.
Sure. Let’s not forget how exclusive the world of virtual reality is right now. Not just the owning of the headset, as models such as ours, the Freefly VR provide an affordable solution. The Google Cardboard is even more affordable. But the delivery of these to some parts of the world is near impossible. Furthermore, the cameras and filming equipment aren’t cheap either. This is technology in its infancy and accessibility to it is not wholly democratic yet. Films made about the Jordan refugee camp are still having to be produced by wealthy charities, often based in the West. The community of people using the gear is still small, compared to those using the internet regularly.
What this means is that we are standing on the edge of a rich reservoir of potential material, and a myriad of uses, but we need to first push the idea of virtual reality mainstream before we can expect to create a socially conscious generation from it. Not just this, but there needs to be a way to empower those whose narratives aren’t being told.
At the moment we have this idea, this kernel of something. With it, app developers are already creating ways in which you can experience life as a bullying victim, or indeed a bully, or you can spend 24 hours in solitary confinement. You can also look through the eyes of a dementia sufferer. There are ways that you can step into someone else’s shoes, just like diving through a cupboard door into John Malkovich’s brain. And when you can interact with that world as that person, that is empathasising on a whole new level.
And there is no better medium than virtual reality. Wearing a headset cuts you off from your own life. It cuts you off from anyone around you and shuts down your own personal context. It’s the solitary nature of exploration in the medium which makes it so confrontational. Things are more serious with no buddies to laugh things off with. What’s more, as Milk says, only in virtual reality can you sit on the “same ground” as the person in the film.
If we all had access to virtual reality gear, could we, as a species, be more socially conscious than ever before? Might we start acting on causes that don’t feel real to us, but are critical to humanity? I think, if anything, the old excuses about not caring might suddenly fall flat. What is crucial, however, is that this technology is used to tell stories that need to be told.
With all respect to John Malkovich, there might be even worthier stories out there than his.