Project Syria by Nonny De La Peña
Image from Flickr user Draxtor Despres.

By Ava Kofman

Viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange are unlikely to forget the scene where the ultraviolent Alex undergoes aversion therapy. Strapped into a chair, eyeballs forced open by metal clamps, Alex watches violent imagery under the influence of a nausea-inducing drug. Accompanied by the swells of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he is conditioned to be repulsed by violence. But despite the dystopian undertones of Alex’s reprogramming, researchers working with contemporary versions of virtual reality praise headsets like the Oculus Rift for their potential uses as “empathy machines.”

The media has quickly picked up on this catchphrase, explaining in article after article that cinematic, roleplaying, and gaming experiences in virtual reality might make us feel and act like better people. It’s true that today’s VR platforms, like Kubrick’s Ludovico technique, do not let us look away: activating senses of sight and sound, and occasionally of touch and smell, they immerse us in experiences with unparalleled levels of intensity, immediacy, and presence. But does this mean that virtual reality works differently than, say, a novel, in sparking our empathic connections? Or is all of the hype simply part of our ritual shock of the new? (After all, cures for the human condition—from psychoanalysis to Romantic poetry to the Internet—are promised every decade or so, and discarded just as quickly).

Researchers have shown that some experiences in virtual reality may help people to resolve interpersonal conflicts, understand the experiences of their elderly relatives, and even sympathize with the plight of factory-farmed cows. Filmmakers like Nonny De La Peña have created immersive journalistic experiences based on documentary footage, audio, and reporting. After entering her 2014 VR experience, Project Syria, which depicts a bombing on the streets of a nation torn by civil war, Josh Constine wrote in Tech Crunch that he now “know[s] just a little bit what it feels like. And it makes [him] want to help.”

From the Lascaux Cave paintings to David Copperfield to Avatar, we’ve been traveling to virtual worlds for as long as we’ve had the ability to think…

Professor Jim Blascovich, director and co-founder of the Research Center for Virtual Environments at the University of California Santa Barbara, attributes intense emotional reactions like these to the technology’s ability to simulate physical presence. “It’s a difference primarily of intensity: it’s like being there,” he said. “We all cry and laugh at movies. What about when you’re in them?”

Of course immersive experience in itself is nothing new. From the Lascaux Cave paintings to David Copperfield to Avatar, we’ve been traveling to virtual worlds for as long as we’ve had the ability to think, but it’s only in recent decades that visually convincing headsets have become affordable. Since at least 2009, major technology companies and small developers alike have been racing to develop hardware for virtual reality’s emerging commercial market—one that will no doubt be massive, given the technology’s applications for the multi-billionaire dollar game, film, and social media industries. Oculus Rift, a VR headset originally funded on Kickstarter, was bought by Facebook last year in a deal worth $2 billion.

Though the technical specifications of models differ, the basic virtual experience across platforms remains fundamentally the same: users put on a headset the size of a large snorkel mask, but instead of seeing out through the glass, they look into a screen that covers their whole field of vision. The headset plugs into a gaming console or computer, and users control their avatar with a standard gaming controller, or, if a motion-tracking camera is set-up, using their hands and bodies. Positional tracking technology replicates the way the user’s eyes track information while the user’s head is moving through space as 3D graphics come together at top speeds to ensure realism and prevent dizziness.

The effect is a vivid feeling of immersion in the virtual world before our eyes, whether it’s swimming with fish underwater in a snorkel simulation or hearing bullets whiz past in a warzone. But any actual empathy in the machine depends on what it’s being used for and who’s using it.

* * *

“Godmother of Virtual Reality,” Nonny de la Peña, refers to the sensory phenomenon induced by virtual reality as a “duality of presence.” Originally a print journalist and documentarian, De La Peña hears reactions to her work with VR that she never encountered when making films and writing stories. She says people’s sensory memory of entering her VR experiences leads them to tell her, “It’s so weird that I can’t help. It’s so strange that I can’t help.”

In her latest project, Project Syria, viewers begin on a street corner in Aleppo. A rocket shatters an overheard song, blasting debris and injuring bodies. Many viewers remove their headsets visibly shaken by the experience. De La Peña credits these reactions to the “visceral” immediacy, embodiment, and sensory engagement inherent to the medium. She says that these responses to Project Syria have translated into tangible fundraising efforts for the Syrian refugee cause. What is it about virtual reality, as opposed to a documentary, that might make people’s heartstrings tug at their wallets?

University of Georgia researcher Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn studies how virtual reality experiences change people’s behavior in the real world. Research by Ahn and other social psychologists shows that taking the perspective of another person often uses a lot of cognitive energy, leaving people with “empathy fatigue.” Virtual reality can change that.

“What virtual reality does really well,” she explains, “is to allow you to take the perspective of another person through seeing their world. I can put you in another world where you’re seeing, hearing, feeling, and touching as another person would, so you end up literally being in the shoes of another person.”

It would be naïve to assume that a single experience, in virtual reality or outside of it, would necessarily
transform a lifetime of stored beliefs into a stroke of insight.

For some people who have trouble empathizing, Ahn thinks that virtual reality experiences could be used as an aid to help them see through another person’s eyes. In one study, Ahn’s lab created a virtual simulation of what the world looks like to those with color blindness. Participants without the visual disability could comprehend the impairment for the first time—a feat that would be impossible to accomplish as acutely in any other media. But what this level of visual recognition ultimately means for our capacity to translate visual recognition into action remains unclear.

Education researcher Hunter Gehlbach likewise studies “perspective-taking,” with the aim of seeing what effect it might have on interpersonal conflict resolution. In a study on “Many Ways to Walk a Mile in Another’s Moccasins,” participants were asked to settle a dispute between a golf course owner and a park ranger in a virtual world. Half of the participants immersed themselves only in the perspective of the golf course owner, whereas the other half first walked around the world in the shoes of a park ranger. Some of the rangers then took the perspective of the golf course owner to negotiate. Those who explored the world through the shoes of both parties displayed a greater willingness to compromise in negotiations.

Gehlbach said his findings could be used to help educators better understand the opinions of their students. “Most of the literature around empathy talks around feelings, but in a classroom it’s just as important to understand ‘What are these kids thinking?’”

At least for now, however, getting closer to someone else’s reality in a simulation is not the same thing as actually experiencing it. And watching a VR experience about refugees does not a refugee make. It would be naïve to assume that a single experience, in virtual reality or outside of it, would necessarily transform a lifetime of stored beliefs into a stroke of insight.

Which is why the efforts of the collective BeAnotherLab, based out of Barcelona, would appear absurd and arrogant if they were indeed part of a standard research protocol, instead of a playful and open-ended artistic experiment. Collaborators at the ‘lab’ have built what they call “the Machine to Be Another,” which attempts to stimulate empathy between two individuals by placing them in embodied interactions. Two people, each hooked up to Oculus Rift’s headsets and filmed with motion tracking cameras, “swap” bodies. By moving at the same pace while seeing the perspective of the other’s body on the headset’s screen, you can trick your brain into feeling as though you’re actually in another body.

When I tried the Machine to Be Another, I became, in a manner of speaking, a twenty-something Japanese woman named Shoko. Of course, on the inside I was still in my head, wondering how my hands were no longer my hands, my body no longer my body. But as far as I could see in the headset, my motions were paired with Shoko’s. We moved slowly, with consideration for maintaining the joint realism of our shared illusion. I realized, participating in this delicate dance, that in the process of collaborating to synchronize our movements for our mutual benefit, something like an ethics of care emerged between our bodies.

“One of the beautiful things that is very common with the body swap is that there’s a point in the experience where people don’t know who is leading in the experience. You lose leadership and have a shared persona in a way,” explained BAL investigator Marte Roel. The experience has been used to allow men to momentarily feel like women, those with limbs to feel like those without, and vice versa. “You become someone in between two people.”

* * *

Amidst all the hype around virtual reality’s novelty, it’s easy to forget about its all-too-human users. Media theorist Doug Rushkoff points out that any argument about empathy depends more on the people using the technology than on the technology itself. “The ability to form empathy in a medium has much less to do with how many senses are involved and more to do with how much control the humans have over the exchange and over what they’re doing,” Rushkoff explained. “I do believe in the empathic possibilities of any medium,” he added, “I just don’t think we should be fooled that the presence of more senses and higher resolution graphics necessarily means more empathy.”

Contrary to what Kubrick’s movie shows, virtual reality experiences are unlikely to change people who do not wish to be changed.

Researchers similarly warn that virtual reality should not be mistaken as a panacea for a cultural “empathy deficit.” “There’s nothing magic about virtual reality that’s an advantage over anything else in terms of science and theories of changing behavior,” Blascovich said. “The same social psychological processes are involved in virtual environments as those we display in the natural world.”

Contrary to what Kubrick’s movie shows, virtual reality experiences are unlikely to change people who do not wish to be changed. “Virtual reality in itself isn’t able to make a good person into a bad person, or vice versa,” Ahn said, “But it is able to augment what’s already there in someone.”

To date, there has not been enough research on the long-terms effects of virtual reality experiences. Hunter Gehlbach is skeptical that a single simulation would have lasting effects, but he hopes to use virtual reality in the classroom regularly to help students build up empathic dispositions over time. “If you imagine these simulations going on maybe once a week, students are more likely to think about what’s going on in other people’s heads.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers have found that analog forms of communication can work equally well to promote empathy. Gehlbach found that in the case of his park ranger dispute, providing really detailed simulations read aloud to participants created a “rich mental imaginative picture” that increased the likeliness of compromise. Our receptivity to the lives of others is more likely determine our social behavior than the machine that facilitates these interactions. Just as a movie in a packed theater means different things to different spectators, it’s unlikely any single interpretative script will dominate how people experience virtual realities.

Or as Rushkoff puts it: “If you start caring about people in your own world, that can translate in virtual worlds.”

Ava Kofman

Ava Kofman is a journalist and researcher based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Vice, The Nation and elsewhere.

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