A “joke” I used to tell:

“One day I’m gonna’ get a tattoo: two outlines of my body, one in green, one in red. So if you’re wearing 3-d glasses and I run at you, it’ll look like I’m running right at you.”

A smart-ass line, but it summed up a certain attitude, you could call it dismissive, towards tech and pop culture.

Likewise, “virtual reality” is one of those phrases that would normally make me guffaw. Maybe it’s the disposability of the stuff we invent and the culture we sow, but yeah, my cultural armor automatically snaps on.

But oh my what a difference actually touching the stuff can make.

I wish I could credit whoever it was who called VR (and by extension the Oculus Rift) an “empathy machine”, but my mind’s a blank, so let’s just call it that and thank the cosmos. Because it truly is an empathy machine. You experience scale, height, speed,, and your mind fills in the blanks of smell, taste and touch. And putting all those elements into play around a given context makes VR a powerful tool for communication and, again, empathy.

VR as a tool in fiction seems to be the next media evolution. Frankly it makes sense to immerse a viewer deeper into a story since we like to have more choices and participate a bit more. But I’m extremely curious to see what the greater impact on documentary and social problems could be if we’re truly able to drop someone in the middle of a situation.


Journalist Nonny de la Peña is a trailblazer in the form. She’s produced pieces like GITMO, that puts you in the shoes (or bare feet) of a prisoner at the notorious prisoner of war camp in Cuba, or Use of Force, which hit me journalistically a little harder. You’re a spectator, watching border police beat to death Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican national attempting to re-enter the US. The tech is relatively primitive: you’re wearing the Oculus rift and headphones, and maneuvering head and body using a game controller. Yet all I really wanted to do was jump over the fence and help Anastasio. I felt that close. It felt that close to real.

The thing is, it’s not that the world has to be so “realistically” convincing. The models in Use of Force are blocky and jagged, limits of the technology right now. But the immersion into a true story that’s so violent and visceral is deeply affecting. It’s not a news report on your computer; you’re there, watching someone who really died like that die.


So how do you chose your details? What makes it in to the final product to produce the effect of empathy? Well it starts with the story doesn’t it, and that’s what we touched on at a workshop hosted by BoostHBG in Helsingborg earlier this week. Oscar Raby, himself a VR artist was the nexus behind the workshop. His project Assent was the starting point, a deeply personal story about his father’s experiences as a soldier in Pinochet-era Chile, it’s a documentary in the form of a letter written to Oscar’s dad, and it takes us from through an abstract impression of a landscape, reconstructed through shared memory, imagination and fragments of light. As he put it himself, it’s not a pure documentary, but the term hits closest to what the piece is meant to convey and do. That was our first clue that the rule book doesn’t really factor into VR production (aside from story-story-story…)

The group I jumped into started from the idea of bullying. Memories of high school were the generator for some of the details, another was the very real limit of a day and a half to build the damn project

So how do you convey bullying, either as the victim or the perpetrator? We decided to step away from being too specific or literal, ultimately even forgetting about the image that got us all interested in the idea in the first place: being held under a pile of lives by an attacker. So we got reductive: work with the environment, pick one main task and if there’s time go beyond that.

What we ended up with was a school hallway populated by silhouettes and a jarring soundscape of distorted bells, conversations, hostile jeers, lockers slamming and fingers pointing as you make your way along the endless hallway towards the safety of the light at the end.

Writing it down, that doesn’t sound like much, impressionistic yes, but not much more. However, slap the Oculus Rift onto your head and dive into that hallway and the impression slams into you. It was rough, yes, and full of flaws, but the experience elevated the content and suddenly we had a piece. One that we’re all motivated to continue working on as well, as the potential became clearer the further along we got.


So where does that leave us? At the portal to another way of thinking about how to tell stories, yes, but also with a whole new impetus to have strong stories to engage us with. Projects like Use of Force bring us closer to some of the reality we might not want to face, but imagine if you had a fear of heights, but could skydive, or were learning surgery but weren’t ready to operate on a live patient. Or wanted to box but didn’t want to get hit. Or maybe you’d like to show a bully what it’s like to be bullied.

The empathy machine has a way to go until it can accomplish all that with authority, but I’m going to enjoy the ride on the way, and without smart ass tattoo jokes.

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