Insights is a new weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE.
The holidays are typically a time when we’re urged to think outside of ourselves and to be more empathetic about the plight of others less fortunate. Put yourself in some poor soul’s shoes and figure out how you can make their life better. And now, some suggest, we have a new tool to improve our empathy: virtual reality.
VR, these boosters say, can immerse you in the real world and its travails, whether that’s to see what it’s like in prison, an ebola epidemic, clear-cutting a forest, or living in a Syrian refugee camp. Academics are diving deep into the possibilities, as are therapists, activists, journalists and others.
One good example might be The Guardian’s first VR project, 6X9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement. The mobile app drops you into a nearly bare, off-white room measuring 6 feet by 9 feet, with a bed, a desk, a toilet and a seat. Should you be so inclined, you can spend 23 hours a day inside that virtual room, the way millions of U.S. prisoners do for weeks, months, even decades.
The choice of subject wasn’t arbitrary. The Guardian has written a long series of pieces looking at the widespread and problematic use of solitary confinement, including its subjection upon juveniles and the mentally ill. Some call it “no-touch” torture and a cruel way to worsen prisoner mental-health issues, making it more difficult for them to ever re-integrate into society.
At October’s VR On the Lot conference, The Guardian and the visual-effects unit of partner Technicolor showed not only the app but a physical space measuring that same spare, white, 6X9 box. It contrasted sharply with nearby location-based VR rigs offering immersive adrenaline experiences like racing cars or flying. And that was the point: Instead of the escapes promised by those other companies, 6X9 shows what it’s like when there’s no escape at all.
Will it change any minds? Maybe.The 9-minute piece lets the viewer experience “an array of psychological effects including blurred vision, hallucinations, and a sense of floating that may occur after long-term sensory deprivation,” as Technicolor puts it.
Even this approach can do no more than provide a modest suggestion of what it really means to be confined 23 hours a day for months or years to a tiny room with virtually no human contact. But it’s still a chance for people to understand ever so slightly more about what “solitary confinement” means in human terms.
There may be some limits to VR’s promise as an empathy engine. Will VR prove as powerful a tool at creating empathetic responses among the victims as it can be for the privileged? For instance, if you’re trying to get people to understand what it’s like to be someone of another race, will it be more effective for people who’ve never been on the receiving end of racist comments than those who have? Furthermore, it’s not clear how long-lasting any of this may be. Effecting behavioral change for the week is great. But how about effecting change for a decade, or more? Researchers just haven’t had enough time to measure longitudinal impacts from technologies that are, at best, only a couple of years old.
Even a strongly positive and involving VR experience can have its downsides. In a piece in The Atlantic this week, Rebecca Searles talked about the dreary comedown that actual reality provides to those who return from virtual reality. She cites one Tilt Brush artist’s term, “post-VR sadness” to illustrate the issue. At this rate, existentialism may be poised for a comeback beyond the college freshman reading list.
A badly done experience can create as much, or more, misunderstanding as it clears up. Not to criticize it any way, but Gary Vaynerchuk’s VaynerMedia created a VR experience for the giant spirits company Diageo that lets you undergo the experience of a fatal drunk-driving accident. It’s something of a VR version of the notorious 1950s drivers-education film Red Asphalt. Especially in this alcohol-soaked holiday season, it’s a worthy goal to reduce the number of deaths and injuries from impaired driving (as the National Safety Council estimates more than 38,000 people were killed and 4.4 million were injured on US roads in 2015). But if an experience like that is done badly, you may not only scare people away from drunk driving, but maybe also driving or even riding in a car.
So one important question about the future of VR is how sharp is the second edge of that sword. Can the empathy engine also become the anti-empathy engine? One researcher likens VR to uranium. It can drive the power plant that heats and lights your home, or it can be used in the bomb that destroys your home, and you.
For instance, given the events, rhetoric and re-emergent fringe elements of this past political season, could activists create VR experiences that depict people of another country or ethnic background as rapists, murderers, or drug kingpins? Could others create experiences so intense that they cause post-traumatic stress disorder, or trigger responses similar to what a rape victim goes through?
The British futurist Luke Robert Mason recently raised the issue of what happens when these “embodiment systems” stimulate and simulate negative experiences. Yes, VR can be as effective as morphine in reducing sensitivity to stress. It can tap into a brain function called mirror neurons that help us embrace and essentially help build our consensus understanding of the world.
“But I also wonder if these systems can be inversely effective in inflicting pain or false memory, at causing trauma rather than treating it,” Mason said. Yes, exactly.
It’s a scary possibility. As we’ve seen by some of the horrific events of recent months in Aleppo, Berlin, Nice and elsewhere, not everyone in the world is looking at building and sharing.
As we move forward in VR, regardless of how fast (or not) the technologies are being embraced, I hope we can remember the holiday sentiment of goodwill to all, and to all, a good life.
This installment of Insights is brought to you by Beachfront RISE, the premier app building company that houses all of your content in one place for any device, and monetizes it automatically with their built in programmatic video advertising platform.