Leveraging Empathy Through VR Storytelling Part 1

Leveraging Empathy Through VR Storytelling Part 1

01 Feb 2022


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This informal CPD article on Leveraging Empathy Through VR Storytelling Part 1 was provided by Moonhub, a software company creating bespoke VR training solutions to unlock your employee’s full potential.

What is virtual reality technology?

Virtual reality technology is an expansive technology that transports users in immersive experiences, simulating and stimulating the users’ senses in virtual environments. VR’s most identifiable hardware component is the head-mounted display (HMD), machine “glasses” that externalises the users’ current environment, which is the biggest distinction between HMD and traditional user interfaces such as monitors and screens. These HMD feature speakers, buttons and touchpads to amplify the sensorial experience to the user. More impressively, VR achieves representational fidelity, a smooth rendering of photorealistic graphics facilitating a sense of presence within the virtual environment.

The applications of VR are boundless. From video games, live concerts, to v-commerce and virtual training scenarios, VR has the potential to completely upend the traditional modes of consumption, creating a low-risk, highly immersive setting for users to learn, collaborate and connect.

In 2015, during his popular TED Talk, artist and filmmaker Chris Milk conceptualised VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”. Milk stressed that VR is a medium that can’t be pinned down to words, describing it as “dancing about architecture”, because inherently it’s an individual experiential medium. Each user participates in the same experience but experiences a different outcome which is powerful leverage for VR.

Inspired by the hardware prospects of VR, Milk partnered with the United Nations to direct a short 360° virtual reality documentary titled Clouds over Sidra. The short followed a day in the life of Sidra, a 12-year old Syrian girl displaced among the other 130,000 refugees in Za'atari camp in Jordan. The stories and the videos of the Syrian refugee crisis in traditional media portrayed a one-dimensional layer of the truth, narrated and framed in a specific angle and meant for consumption in a particular mode.

In 1966, James Gibson related to this phenomenon as the affordance theory, where the affordance enables users to interact with the environment or space they’re in relative to what and how they perceive possible actions. In traditional media, the actions are limited, the space and the environment are centralised and gatekept.

In Clouds over Sidra, Milk enriched the portrayal of the reality in the refugee camp, augmenting the story through the addition of audio and visual content weaved in a storytelling structure that allowed users to transition not only from passive spectators but to active participants, effectively decentralising the experience.

In 2015, Milk and his team portrayed Clouds over Sidra to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s most influential stakeholders participated in the experience. By the end, Milk and the UN were able to successfully raise awareness of the crisis and fundraise $3.8 billion in refugee relief aid. This is the power of what is referred to as Virtual Reality NonFiction (VRNF).

Virtual Reality NonFiction (VRNF)

Producers of VRNF thus have the possibility and, in some cases, the obligation of working and testing the limits of this new medium through rapidly evolving hardware and software especially in regards to interactivity. Through hand-held devices, users can pick and point objects, open doors to new environments, sense the presence of others through motion recognition and even communicate with the other “actors” in the world through voice recognition. Haptic clothing and wearable equipment allows users to freely walk, run, climb and a wealth of other mobility options.

Sound also becomes a pivotal tool for content makers to influence their works. Predominantly, VRNF content producers orient towards the use of stereo sound, with a few producers experimenting with spatialized sound, where the sound is both omnidirectional and responsive to the movement of the user.

Spatialized sound, however, has reported higher scores of engagements from users and possibly an increase in cognitive empathy, which presents great benefits for content producers who choose to experiment with this audio composition. Similarly, the use of diegetic and non-diegetic scores followed the stereo-spatial trend: diegetic scores were a rarity in the field, and again, reported a boost in the experience and post-experience outcome.

VRNF is a powerfully immersive experience, creating 3D or 360° virtual environments for digital storytelling with vast potential in fields such as education and social justice. By shifting the spectator to a participating actor, VRNF triggers the catalyst that has the power for deep-rooted change among all social levels: empathy.

The challenges and limitations of VRNF

In our next post, we will deep dive into the concept of empathy, the challenges and limitations of VRNF and most importantly the powerful drive that the medium has on elevating sensitive topics in the field of education and social justice.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from Moonhub, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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For more information from Moonhub, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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