Virtual (or) Reality: The Empathy Machine?

Nitzan Gindi, Agathe Rialland, Matthijs de Olde, Laura Döring

Virtual Reality (VR) is increasingly being used by international actors, such as government militaries, non-governmental organizations, multinational corporations and more. High tech VR headsets offer the sensation of being in a different time and place by surrounding us with 360° 3D images that move in an optimal speed which simulates a first hand real-life experience. In addition, the headsets include surround system headphones that further reinforce the feeling of entering an alternative reality to the physical reality.

Further research is required for the examination of the increasing usage of VR technology for different purposes by international actors. In this work we critically engage with the strong effect the medium of VR has in light of its different usages and purposes and its connected dilemmas. We do so by drawing from Gillian Rose’s encompassing approach for critical visual methodology (Rose, 2016). Due to this work’s limitations, we specifically focus on her analysis of the social modality within “the site of production” of visual materials. In other words, we look at the producer, for whom it is made and for which purpose (Bleiker, 2009).

In January 2015, the United Nations (UN) has initiated the UNVR Series. Through the relatively new medium of VR, interactive computer-generated experiences are used as a way to “…bring the world’s most pressing challenges home to decision makers and global citizens around the world, pushing the bounds of empathy” (UNVR, 2015). When watching the UNVR project with a critical eye, it becomes apparent that each experience is a carefully orchestrated manipulation of our senses with the aim of stimulating our empathy. Chris Milk himself, one of the producers of the UNVR movies, said that with this “machine” [VR] minds can be changed because empathy and the humanity of the other person is felt in a deeper way (Milk, 2015). To demonstrate this, Milk refers to the first UNVR project, Clouds over Sidra (UNVR, 2015), which is telling the story of Sidra, a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

Creating empathy can be identified as the main goal of the UN project and the VR campaigns of several NGOs using the medium for fundraising purposes, like Amnesty International (Amnesty International, 2015). While empathy is hard to measure, the level of impact of the virtual experience is exemplified by the donations made by people who experienced it. After screening Clouds over Sidra, UN donations rose from $2.4 billion to $3.6 billion, and Amnesty International reported a 16% increase in donations among participations of their VR projects (Makin, 2017). Hence, whether UNVR has successfully found a system to convey empathy or not, their virtual films seem to impact those experiencing it.

In his Ted Talk, Milk explains that in other visual mediums “there is a translation gap between the reality of the story and our consciousness interpreting the story in our reality.” However, in VR, or the “Empathy Machine” as he calls it, he claims that “…your consciousness is the medium.” Milk explained that he views VR as closing the gap between our interpretation of the story and the “real” story, which he tries to convey (Milk, 2016).

Here we wish to problematize Milk’s claims. Drawing on Ronald Bleiker’s (2009) classification, we view Milk’s approach as a mimetic mode of representation. This is not to say that he claims for an objective reality that could be portrayed, but that through VR he can convey a story about reality that does not depends on the audience’s interpretation. We do acknowledge the ability of VR to offer an intense visual experience. However, it is our view that it does not, at least at this point, substitute our consciousness and thus, fails to escape the necessity of interpretation. Furthermore, following the interpretive position, we do not perceive social or political reality as existing in an a priori way, or as one that can escape our subjective interpretation and thus, we dispute Milk’s claims for the medium’s ability to convey the “real story” (Milk, 2016).

One way or another, VR offers a powerful tool to convey certain emotions. The effect this medium has is by far stronger than the effect a normal video on a screen would have, giving it a stronger manipulative power. Since those feelings are not only limited to empathy, and VR is used for various purposes, such as military training, a new generation of (mainly violent) video games and more, we created a video which underlines some of the dilemmas connected to the power of the medium and its implications.

Through our video, we seek to illustrate that the line between virtual and physical reality are becoming increasingly blurry. This is done by juxtaposing various existing VR imagery and videos, which emphasize the contrast between the ‘peaceful’ informative usages of the medium to the ‘violent’ experiences it offers at the same time. Taking into account Milk’s claim that “our consciousness is the medium” (Milk, 2016), we wanted to illustrate the dangers of a medium where there is no difference between the represented and the representation and thus, no room for interpretation. If we are prevented from attaching subjective meanings to the (virtual) realities portrayed to us by the “Empathy Machine”, then the reality of the story becomes the reality of the viewer. If that is the case, we are vulnerable to manipulation of our reality dictated to us through the virtual.

Through our video, we wish to make the viewers question the emotions conveyed to them through the VR simulation by exposing them to other, more violent VR experiences. If empathy can be created through VR, so surely can other feelings such as anger, fear and hatred. The lines between the “real world” images and virtual reality simulations are blurred, underlined by an audio that is as well shifting between the real and the virtual world.

Conclusively, the medium of VR offers a powerful experience, which has a great potential of conveying certain feelings to its users. This potential attracts international actors such as the UN, which utilized the new medium in order to mobilize public and decision-makers opinion by adhering to their empathy. However, our critical engagement with the VR medium left us wondering: to what extent such emotionally intense simulation of reality should be used to manipulate viewer’s feelings? While denying Milk’s claim that VR closes the gap between our interpretation of the story and the “real” story, we still problematize his notion of using this medium in effort to portray a reality that is not open for our interpretation. Furthermore, as shown in our video, VR usage for simulating violent situations and war can convey an entirely different range of emotions and feelings. The VR technology can broaden empathy for a cause, but also distance the viewer from what is real and what is virtual. Is it desirable to have a medium that can distort our view of reality?

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