Virtual reality the ultimate empathy machine?

Chris Milk a film producer worked alongside the UN to create a VR film. Clouds Over Sidra, puts the user inside a Syrian refugee camp and follows a day in the life of 12-year- Sidra who has lived there for 18 months with thousands of other refugees.

Milk explains during a TED Talk  explains “[virtual reality] connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other, that is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”

Yet some people worry that such immersive technology, if not executed carefully, could backfire. Dropping viewers into a violent experience that’s shocking or horrific which might alienate them and make them not want to return or get involved, says Sam Gregory, a Harvard University adjunct lecturer on human rights. Or if people have no way to take action and help after seeing another’s plight, then virtual reality could end up being just another form of poverty tourism. “It’s confusing immersion for empathy,” Gregory says.

Unlike other projects that use scripted film or digital avatars, The Machine to Be Another relies on live performers and some on-stage ad-libbing to generate that deeper understanding between people. A performer can see and watch and mirror the movements of the participant. In some cases, a participant is handed an apple or an object at the same time as a performer. So they touch and see the same thing. A participant can drive the actions and interact with the “narrative” of the performer. And the two can also meet afterward and continue that understanding, Bertrand says. “Afterwards, you say, ‘I want to know more about your life.’”

The experience can be powerful and some participants have said that the performer’s own voice becomes their own stream of consciousness. Yet for other users—as in the case of MIT research associate Ainsley Sutherland—the experience falls short. Sutherland tested out the project and says virtual reality is great for creating new experiences of subjectivity, perception, and sociality. “I think ’empathy’ is the wrong objective because it assumes too much about the power of visual immersion,” she says.

Bertrand says Be Another Lab plans to create more experiences of empathy that use no technology at all. “We don’t need technology to feel empathy,” he says. “The question is, ‘what would the world be like if we could better understand each other?’”

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