Simulating Empathy: First Person Experiences in VR Documentary

Notes on Blindness - Empathy - VR Documentary - Technology

Can First Person Experiences in VR Documentary Capable Of Eliciting True Empathy?

This research seeks to explore whether first-person experiences using virtual reality technology can make users more empathetic to the feelings and experiences of others – simply by immersing themselves into virtual environments. Finding out more about VR documentary and empathy peaked my interest because it brings together my professional interest in film and technology with my personal interest in humanitarianism.

Virtual reality (VR) has been described as ‘an immersive media experience that replicates either real or imagined environment and allows users to interact with this world in ways that feel as if they are there’ (Owen et al, 2015). It works by replacing users’ visual and aural connections to the real world with connections to a virtual environment (VE), through the use of headphones and a VR headset (otherwise known as a head-mounted display, or HMD). Virtual environments are created either using computer-generated imagery (CGI) or using live footage captured with 360-degree cameras. Its scope now extends farther than gaming, flight simulation (Heap et al, 1994, pp. 371–391), literature (Weinbaum, 2010), and film (TRON, DVD,1982; Brainstorm, DVD, 1983; The Thirteenth Floor, DVD, 1999; The Matrix, DVD, 1999).

PopCap founder John Vechey now refers to virtual reality as offering the possibility of detaching our physical bodies and our reality from our presence, marking an important step in our current information revolution (TEDx Talks, 2015b). David Sackman, CEO of AppliedVR, builds upon this by suggesting that the information VR can provide can be used to create acceptance across societies and races; reduce poverty; and build self-esteem and confidence (TEDx Talks, 2015a). It is this promise — delivered almost two years ago by VR creator Chris Milk — that has captured the attention of filmmakers, journalists and humanitarians alike:

It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other. […] So, it’s a machine, but through this machine, we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.

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