VR Empathy – Ben

My feelings around the efficacy of VR depends a great deal on the project in which it is used, especially in regards to facilitating empathy. The implications of such a goal for the technology vary, whether a game, immersive narrative, photographic recreation or historical recreation. VR is a tool and medium, not an end in itself, and being mindful of the context of its use is important.

Art and design at its best invokes feelings and responses, emotionally and conceptually. And this is good, it pushes us outside of our own world. Yet the same potential for learning and growth can as easily be manipulative and deceitful. With all the immersive and empathetic potential of VR, this darker potential is one that I see lost in the hype. From what I can tell, VR got its first populist push with the Oculus Rift and gaming culture, hooking into existing worlds and scenarios and embedding the player deeper than they’d ever played the game.

Moving outside of gaming however, some of the “serious” uses of VR have more responsibility in how the tech is used. When leaving behind the fantasy of gaming and more of the real world is integrated into the experience, things get significantly more complicated. Some of the projects we’ve looked at before today’s class stand as prime examples of this, such as “Empathy at Scale” and “Ferguson Firsthand”. Here there is some promise of reflecting the real world, showing you “What actually happened”, yet the experience itself will always be a designed and curated one. I’m sure the creators did their utmost to research and vet and second-guess what they were doing, but there always be some of the subjective that slips in, hiding in the guise of objectivity. It is the blurring that worries me as we start discussing “serious” use of VR. This might be a problem of framing, of making sure audiences understand the fact vs fiction in a work, but it is a problem all the same, and one I think is worth more exploration.

One thought on “VR Empathy – Ben”

  1. I appreciate the comments above (and those of others in the class) about how its possible to use all media for a range of what we might call positive and negative ends, that the word media is akin to “mediation,” a conduit. Thinking about the relation of media affordances to a range of outcomes, we might consider:
    — the Marshall McLuhan quote, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” People have been trying to recreate or simulate reality for some time. Why might people want to do this, and what might they hope to gain? Media is often used to persuade. Persuasive writing: power (previously?) held by newspapers, banned books. Persuasive coverage, how radio & TV had power. Cinema: power over the gaze. What kind of affordances / power / potential might immersive media have that is different from other media? How might it be used in ways that differ from text, sound, still or moving image? Can it be used differently? If so, how might it be used by those who wish to create positive change?
    — research by corporations on regulating emotions through media; addiction to social media affirmation (complete with neurotransmitter response), and how this might be used
    — Facebook’s purchase of Oculus
    — As Ben describes, all representation is subjectively created, there’s “promise of reflecting the real world, showing you ‘What actually happened.’ yet the experience itself will always be a designed and curated one…”

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