Art and Empathy — the Virtual Reality of Social Change

05-01-2017

Virtual reality (VR) technology is most often associated with gaming, but there is a growing movement to leverage the technology for social impact as well. VR is proving to have a unique ability to impact behavioral change — an impact shown through an increasingly substantial body of academic research and real-world case studies — justifying that every organization, from nonprofits to big businesses, consider integrating VR in their content strategies to communicate in innovative ways.

Building Empathy

When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) speaks about their use of VR, they make it a point to differentiate these efforts from the controversial communications tactics for which they are commonly known. Their VR experiences are designed to increase knowledge, alter perspectives, and change behaviors.

In undertaking its exploration of VR, PETA consulted with theStanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Researchers there have conclusively linked VR with both the capacity to increase human empathy and the ability to influence positive behaviors linked with this greater sense of empathy. The empathy we gain through VR-informed experiences appears to influence our empathic natures as strongly as the experiences we gain through our everyday lives.

Empathy — the ability to identify with others because you have shared similar experiences — is seen as one of the most critical 21st-century skills, and yet, it’s in decline. According to Geoff Colvin — in his Fortune article, “Humans are underrated” — “Researchers analyzed 72 studies that measured empathy in about 14,000 college students since 1979 and found a broad decline over time. Their empathy seems unlikely to increase; separate research suggests this quality declines with age.”

Art has always been an important factor in promoting empathy, and in an age of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-focused (STEM-focused) learning, creativity is needed more than ever before to produce empathetic feelings. VR represents a unique intersection of technology with visual arts that, through expression of emotion and shared experiences, can create empathy. Activists, as well as nonprofits and businesses, are employing the creative medium of VR to help build empathy for their causes and their customers.

“Virtual reality is quickly gaining a reputation as an empathy machine,” said Mark Henley, Adobe’s director of transformation and digital strategy for the Asia-Pacific region. “Empathy is the first step in effecting change, and by offering these new virtual ways to explore culture and identity, it can help us all overcome potential deficiencies, turn weaknesses into strengths, and have an opportunity for greater understanding and greater unification.”

Although it is still leading-edge and very new, virtual reality is already a proven technology in PETA’s book. PETA has completed two VR projects to date — “I, Chicken,” which explores how it feels to be a free-range chicken outdoors, and “I, Orca,” which contrasts the sense of being a whale in its natural, deep-sea habitat with that of being relegated to theme-park captivity. “What we wanted to explore was how to leverage VR to develop an ethical mindset, with empathy as a cornerstone,” explains James Rodgers, director of innovation for PETA.

James explains that “I, Chicken” began as a CGI film and touring project involving students from more than 100 college campuses across the United States. The next iteration was much more nimble, leveraging Google Cardboard VR headsets for use with smartphones. “This one,” he says, “has traveled all around the world.”

Immersive Experiences in a World of Distractions

According to The Nexus Fund’s executive director, Sally Smith, the goggles currently required to experience VR are not only a novelty-piquing interest, but also serve to ensure that one’s message be considered.The Nexus Fundisa nonprofit that Smith founded to proactively prevent genocide and mass atrocities, and she is always looking for innovative ways to capture attention in an increasingly distracted world. “While watching a virtual reality film, you are fully immersed — you can’t even look at your phone,” she explains. “In our device-centric world, that in itself is an excellent, rare opportunity to capitalize on.”

After viewing the film, “One Dark Night” — an immersive VR re-creation of the Trayvon Martin shooting — Sally began considering VR as a strategy for educating potential donors about the plight of the Rohingya: a displaced Muslim population of more than one million, said to be the most persecuted group in the world and feared to be the world’s next mass atrocity. Once she learned about VR’s unique ability to impact brain reception just as strongly as empathic, real-life scenarios experienced in our non-goggled, everyday lives, Sally was convinced: The Nexus Fund needed to explore VR as a tool. The Rohingya genocide was a story Sally wanted to show, not just tell. And, as she further explained, enabling the people to tell their individual stories directly to viewers — in addition to having viewers actually experience them — is another unique benefit of VR.

In 2014, Sarah Hill, CEO and chief storyteller of StoryUp, began a project that used augmented reality (AR) and Google Glass to livestream tours of the WWII Memorial in Washington, DC. The streamed tour allowed veterans to experience the memorial even if they couldn’t physically travel to see it. When Google pulled the Glass program, StoryUp needed to find an alternative — and VR was the solution.

“We created our first VR film, Honor Everywhere,” Sarah says, “and watching veterans react to immersive media, we noticed how it seemed like they didn’t just watch the video; they felt it. Their reactions set us on a path to try to learn how we could tailor specific immersive storytelling inputs to impact physiology.”

StoryUp has partnered with the Neuromeditation Institute in Oregon to study how VR media experiences can be customized to try to reduce baseline symptoms of anxiety. “It’s like tuning a piano,” Sarah says. “I’m pressing the storytelling keys, and a psychologist is on the other end telling me if that note changes the brain wave pattern in a different way.”

While StoryUp is not suggesting that VR can totally replace psychotropic medications, it is examining ways in which VR might have the potential to reduce reliance upon those medications by creating positive immersive experiences.

Critics of using VR to explore human physiology base their concerns on the premise of treating “real” problems with “artificial” experiences, claiming that any empathy felt through VR isn’t real or lasting empathy.

To those critics, Sarah says, “We’ve learned that VR stories can light up certain emotional processing centers in the brain. To me, whether that is ‘real’ depends on the person and whether that feeling lasts beyond when they take off the headset.”

Creating Experiences

Experiences like immersive VR stories help people from all walks of life make emotional connections. According to the report, “The Future of Experience,” released last July by Adobe and Goldsmith, University of London, these “deep experiences” are what consumers want. Of the 2,000 UK adults surveyed online, 32 percent responded that a great experience is one that is meaningful; 19 percent responded that it is personal; and another 19 percent claimed a great experience is straightforward.

Understanding and embracing the importance of empathy is key to changing social issues, but it can be just as important to making changes in business as well as in other areas of life. As organizations continue to add unique, innovative, and meaningful VR applications to their marketing strategies, the success they experience will entice others to follow their leads.

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