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The Cost of Empathy in VR Films

The Cost of Empathy in VR Films

“The Cost of Empathy in Virtual Reality Films”

By Elizabeth Roberts
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Tactical Technology Reporting; 5/12/16

Opportunities for virtual reality go beyond enhanced video game experiences. In March 2014, tech giant Mark Zuckerberg acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion. The Oculus Rift headset, which facilitates VR immersion, is a device that makes the user feel as if he or she has been transported into a different environment.

In Zuckerberg’s public Facebook post announcing the Oculus VR acquisition in 2014, he said that VR is a new communication platform that has the ability to affect billions of people. “

What if that same idea of connectivity made the thousands of miles between you and the Syrian refugee crisis disappear?

“Clouds Over Sidra” is the first of three VR shorts in the United Nations series collaborating with VR production company Vrse.works. The goal of the shorts is to heighten awareness of international problems. “Waves of Grace” (2015) depicts the aftermath of the Ebola crisis while “My Mother’s Wing” (2016) shadows a Palestinian mother who lost two children in the Gaza strip. The latter made its U.S. premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I never saw [film] representation that was nuanced and interesting, that captured the problems I saw without being overly romantic or despairing,” UN senior adviser and director Gabo Arora says. “I think there’s something in VR, in the close-up approach, that makes it easier to understand.”

“Clouds Over Sidra” follows 12-year-old Sidra, a girl uprooted from her home and living with thousands of refugees in Jordan. The short was shown at the Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, a conference held in Kuwait in March 2015. The event was projected to raise $2.3 billion but raised $3.8 billion, according to Fastcompany.com.

Arora believes that the increased donations may have followed a heightened sense of empathy toward Sidra and other refugees in the film.

While there’s evidence of empathy in VR, it requires further investigation according to Dr. Manolya Kavakli of Macquarie University in Australia. Through her human computer interaction (HCI) research, Kavakli cites similar theories from Dr. Giuseppe Riva of Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Italy, who said, “VR can supplement certain aspects of presence... the interaction with ‘anxious’ and ‘relaxing’ virtual environments produced anxiety and relaxation.”

Similarly in “My Mother’s Wing”, VR viewers might feel that same sense of loss as a mother who’s leading her remaining child around the ruins of her neighborhood.
At a Tribeca Film Festival panel on April 18, Vrse.works founder and director Chris Milk said he believes that watching VR films can result in increased empathy toward subjects in that film.

Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of

students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by

putting on goggles in your home,” Zuckerberg said.

“VR is making your consciousness a new medium,” Milk said. “The empathy is a natural byproduct of what the medium is making you feel- close to other human beings. We still care most about the issues that are closest to us. But VR can take you to a completely different part of the world that’s in crisis.”

To achieve that feeling of close proximity, various types of VR equipment are used- all are works in progress.

The Tow Center of Digital Journalism, PBS and VR production company Secret Location wrote an in-depth report (“Virtual Reality Journalism”) about the production of Frontline’s first VR documentary “Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey.” In the field, “...the camera rig was an improvised, immature combination of technologies. It used 12 GoPro cameras held in stereo pairs by a 3D-printed frame.”

Lead videographer Alicia Millane at Primacy, a VR production company, writes that their camera rigs are 3D-printed as well. Shaped like a sphere, the rigs can hold up to 10 GoPro Hero4 cameras. In her blog post “Behind the Scenes of Virtual Reality”, she explains that each of the cameras are mounted at a different angle so they overlap the perspective of another camera, thereby eliminating any gaps in the 360 degree footage. Vrse.works executive producer Samantha Storr (“My Mother’s Wing”) says that the rigs the company uses “are almost always of our own design, tinkered with over and over.”

There are limitations to VR film with the mechanisms used to produce it. “Virtual Reality Journalism” points to setbacks such as inconsistencies in the rigs’ lenses and the inability to adjust color and light levels. Storr speaks to the difficulty of being unable to see footage while it’s being captured.

“We take great effort to place the camera system in places that feel true to our story,” Storr says. “Crew can't be in the shot, and for the shoots where we have no live playback or wireless monitoring, we can't really know what was in the shot.”

The selectivity of such shots is one of the reasons that Tom Kent, AP’s deputy managing editor and standards editor, is concerned about how VR films are presented to the public. In his talk at the 2016 International Symposium on Online Journalism, Kent said, “Producers do start with reality but there is a strong temptation to take some artistic license.”

Crafting the story through meticulously placed camera positions could heighten a sense of empathy; while some producers see good intentions, others see an angle. “The sheer immersive power of VR can pull you so far into the scene that you emerge with a strong political or social opinion, probably one that the producer intended,” Kent said in his ISOJ presentation.

Due to VR’s immersive ability, Kent is an advocate of pre-roll disclosures, which detail the intentions of the film before it begins. Over email, he said, “If every news VR production is designed to affect people’s emotions, make them give money etc., people will tire of the medium quickly, seeing it as a technique for persuasion rather than information.”

Due to the collaborative production of “My Mother’s Wing” with the UN rather than a media outlet, it’s debatable whether this film would qualify as a strictly news VR piece. Statistics haven’t been released yet regarding the number of donations the UN received after “My Mother’s Wing” premiered this year. While Arora says that VR is an inevitable integration into filmmaking’s future, he said it could be anywhere from two, five or 10 years from now. As for now, he’s satisfied with the impact it’s making in countries neighboring conflict.

Arora said it was important to him that the world premiere of “My Mother’s Wing” was at Tel Aviv University in early March. “One viewer was a 15-year-old military student in Israel, he will probably be in Gaza some day fighting,” Arora said. “The student actually said, ‘I had no idea what it was like [there] and I kind of feel that in a lot of ways they’re just like us.’ I couldn’t have asked for anything more, just reaching that one 15-year-old going into the army that will remember this mother.”

Photo Credit: Pixium Digital

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