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Once again, with feeling: how virtual reality can change the world

Ben Forman and Kat Lintott

Media is designed to make us feel things. But can virtual reality – sometimes referred to by the believers as an ‘empathy machine’ – make us do things and influence our behaviour in the real world? Ben Forman and Kat Lintott, co-founders of Wellington production company Wrestler, certainly think so.

We humans have always been excited about the ways new mediums could influence our world. Print offered a way to disseminate information widely. Film promised us a window into a world greater than our own. Radio, and then television, offered a direct line into the homes of millions. Then the internet arrived with the promise of information and connectivity in the hands of anyone, anywhere.

Like most new technologies, there was more focus on the potential to create positive change than on the potential for harm, or for it to be used in unexpected ways. And that’s also true when it comes to virtual reality (VR). For a large portion of the early adopters and content creators, the potential to engage with audiences like never before; to create empathy on another level; and to tell stories in a completely new way greatly outweighs the potential of a dystopian nightmare, where humans check out of the real world because the virtual world is so irresistible. 

VR sits at a crossroads, and it’s up to its early explorers to help steer it in the right direction. Thankfully, there is a big movement out there trying to make the most of this new medium – and Wrestler is part of it. 

Visions of the future

Before you start tearing up at the thought of all the world saving we’re going to do, I do want to make a distinction between the acronyms VR, AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality).  A lot of the time these get bunched together, when they’re actually quite different. Virtual reality is fully immersive, the world as you know it is gone and a completely simulated experience is presented to you; augmented reality involves the projection of digital assets into your real world environment, and is currently only possible with the likes of a Microsoft Hololens or on a phone, which is a pretty simple experience for now; and mixed reality takes augmented reality a step further and enables those digital assets to interact with your real world environment, something much-discussed startup Magic Leap (and Wellington’s Weta Workshop) are attempting to bring to life. For the sake of this article, I’m only referring to virtual reality, as, at present, it’s the full immersion that really opens up a new playing field in emotive storytelling.

The key to all successful VR is what we call ‘presence’. Presence effectively means you forget the real world and feel completely absorbed into the digital experience. This is achieved through pretty smart technology, none being more important than head tracking. With powerful and accurate sensors, modern VR tech is able to mimic your movements from the real world in the digital (this is called translation) and allows the viewer to feel as though they are in the virtual world. 

Obviously the more advanced the translation, the more convincing the experience. 360 degree sound is arguably the second most important thing to get right. We already hear the real world in 360 degrees, so to then put someone into a stereo environment immediately alerts the brain that something is up. Then you get into the tracked controllers and even more advanced haptic feedback wearables, where you can feel the virtual environment as if you were actually touching it. 

According to the study, by tapping into the subconscious aspects of our positive psyche we are able to unlock greater potential in people.

Haptics provide resistance, which is effectively a trick to simulate weight, force and all sorts of fun physical sensations. 

So once you’ve got the user into the environment and the tech is doing its work, what’s next? Where is all this buzz coming from? Why are people referring to VR as ‘The Empathy Machine’? I put it down to one very simple premise: with traditional media you are looking at a scene and are asked to relate to a character's emotion. In VR you are in the scene and you are the character, which means you’re not only asked to relate to the emotion, you’re supposed to be the one feeling it. Then and there, in the scene, as it’s happening. 

I don’t want to undermine the power of emotional storytelling through mediums such as film and theatre, but when you can replace the actors with the viewer themselves, it’s a very powerful emotive tool. This obviously opens up a can of worms in terms of how you tell an effective story in VR and how you manage a narrative whilst having an observer thrust into the middle of it. I would say we’ve still got a while to go until we understand how to do this effectively. Much like film, we need to build a language in which we tell our stories. And we’re only just starting to learn it. 

Right in the feels

An example of someone who is doing it right is Lynette Wallworth, whose VR experience, Collisions, looks at Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan’s account of the Maralinga atomic tests in the Australian Outback. One of the most powerful things she brings to the piece is at the very beginning of the experience. As the viewer we are welcomed by Nyarri Nyarri. He looks right at us, and invites us onto the land and into his story. Not only is this powerful from a cultural standpoint, but from a psychological perspective it acknowledges us as the viewer and gives us a role in the story. From that point on it’s all about letting Nyarri guide us through the story and we as the viewer feel like we are there with him, in the Outback, sans insane heat. It’s a little moment, but it makes a big difference in our perception of that world and our place within it. Much like reality, we are far more comfortable when we know our place and purpose; it’s a safe zone, effectively. 

The psychology behind VR and its emotive power is a hot topic right now. It’s all well and good to talk about how much more emotion and empathy you can slam into the mind of the viewer, but what are the facts? Is this really the case, or is it simply hype that’s leading us to believe there’s something greater here? 

A recent study lead by Robin Rosenburg at Stanford University put four groups into several different VR scenarios. One scenario involved the viewers playing the role of a superhero, flying into a city to save a small child. The second set of viewers were still superheroes but simply flew around the city. The third scenario involved the viewers flying into the city on a helicopter and had them rescuing the child. The fourth was simply a helicopter tour of the city, no child saving. After the experience, the facilitator would ‘accidentally’ spill a jar of pens to test who responded in a helpful way. And to summarise Rosenburg’s findings: “The results indicate that having the ‘superpower’ of flight leads to greater helping behaviour in the real world regardless of how participants used that power. A possible mechanism for this result is that having the power of flight primed concepts and prototypes associated with superheroes.”

According to the study, by tapping into the subconscious aspects of our positive psyche we are able to unlock greater potential in people.

“Film does the same thing” I hear you cry! Another recent study by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab looked at environmental empathy development using the experience of cutting down a tree to encourage paper conservation. The tree cutting experiment resulted in VR learners consuming 20 percent less paper than learners who interacted with tree cutting through print and video media. These sorts of results show what’s possible through presence. It’s the interaction that transcends traditional media and forms a connection with the viewer that not only feels more powerful at the time, but resonates more powerfully into the real world. 

It’s the connection between the virtual and the real that will ultimately decide whether your experience has truly created emotion and sparked empathy, or whether it was just a cool experience that made someone sweaty.

Speaking of trees, a recent experience by New Realities Co. titled ‘Tree’ launched at Tribeca this year, and showed similar results. ‘Tree’ is more of a 4D VR experience, where you are given a small seed in the real world, before you hop into the virtual. The experience then starts with you in the soil, making your way up into the fresh air. You then grow tall above the forest and experience the birds and wind. You even feel the wind, from a fan placed in the real world, and smell the forest through some sort of smell dispenser. After a moment of bliss and experiencing what it’s like to be a tree, humans come along and start chopping you down. The floor below you starts to shake and a heater blasts you with heat to mimic the fire. It’s all very sensory, and leaves you feeling pretty shitty about what we’re doing to the world, which is the whole point.

To give another example – and to shamelessly promote my business – an experience we’re creating at Wrestler aims to harness the power of VR and its impact on the real world through an interactive dance experience in which the user has to awaken their inner goddess through dance. Called Wake, users mimic the dance moves of a goddess in surreal and inspiring environments, and we aim to incorporate aspects of movement therapy, which is designed to support intellectual, emotional and motor functions of the body. Imagine dancing with the goddess of courage before heading off to an interview, or with the goddess of wisdom before replying to that heated email. Wake recently received development funding from the New Zealand Film Commision, which is a great sign of support in the development of the industry in New Zealand.

Sum of the parts

In an age of information overload, it’s hard to get people to even feel something, let alone do something. That means you can’t think about VR in isolation. It is not the evolution of film, or gaming, or theatre. It’s an evolution of various mediums and the convergence of several technological innovations. It’s a new way of experiencing stories, emotions, characters, scenes, interactions and so much more. But, like any creative pursuit, there are no guarantees. For that reason we need to approach VR content from a completely new perspective, throwing out our old ways of working and of thinking, and developing new ways of creating. When creating an experience we need to consider not only the story, but the interactivity, the role of the viewer, their level of participation, the physiological effects of the environment, sound and so on. 

It’s a mammoth undertaking creating a VR experience. It’s literally building a virtual world, and there’s no room for shortcuts. Every angle, every sound, every object, needs to be thought out. I guess that’s also what makes VR so damn powerful. It’s a sensory overload where you as the creator effectively sets the rules for that virtual world. 

But it’s the connection between the virtual and the real that will ultimately decide whether your experience has truly created emotion and sparked empathy, or whether it was just a cool experience that made someone sweaty. Playing a politically-motivated piece to a group of government decision makers before they vote on the topic of your piece, like Lynette Wallworth did with Collisions, is one way of connecting the virtual to the real. Just like in the business world, a meeting is no good unless you have the follow up. The best VR experiences are not just VR. VR plants the seed and then various other mediums back that experience up. The interconnectivity of our technological ecosystem is what’s really proving to be an effective force for change.

For all of the VR content creators out there right now, it does feel like we’re faced with a choice. A) use VR to connect with people on an emotive level never possible with any medium before it. B) use VR to make some cash, which generally means shoot ‘em ups, zombie games, porn and training videos. All those things do make you feel something – in very different ways – but I’m pretty keen to stick with option A) and try to create experiences that make people better in the real world. 

The funding conundrum  

The funding landscape in virtual reality is a true a chicken and egg situation. The problem stems from the fact that developers and techno whiz kids built the foundation of modern VR through super advanced headsets. Then, to prove their tech worked, they created some content. From there it began to grow and, for some reason, the same people who built the tech kept making the content and the storytellers have been kept at a distance. Not only that, but when storytellers have got involved, they often seem to approach it from the medium they’ve come from, so a filmmaker adapts a story for VR, or a developer adapts their game for VR, etc. What we’ve failed to see much of is a new breed of creatives who are actively creating content that was specifically designed for VR.

No one buys technology for technology's sake, they buy it to access the content. It’s like owning a PlayStation but not having any good games. So what we have is an amazing technology, lacking in high quality content that effectively harnesses the power of the medium, sitting in the hands of a few interested early adopters. Aside from brand-funded VR experiences and activations (or public good campaigns like the New Zealand Fire Service’s Escape My House), the market for VR content isn’t there yet, and because of that, the money to create them isn’t there yet. The money will come when the market is proven, but the market can only be proven by someone pouring a shit ton of cash into creating game-changing experiences.

To crystalise the stagnation of development, we have the hype cycle reaching its peak, and claims like “the VR industry will reach US$162 billion by 2020” are common. That’s only three years away. We’ve travelled the world looking at this market recently and, while expensive headsets are being bought, even Hollywood studios cringe at the thought of spending more than $1 million on a VR experience. There are also questions about whether people will be willing to pay to experience VR as they currently do with a movie, or even if we can handle VR for long periods because of the intensity of the experience.

The solution? People need to put their heads down, do the hard yards, become pioneers and prove the value and worth of the industry, with no expectation of cash up front. What we’ve realised is that the money on offer is only there if people take a risk, put their businesses on the line and go for it.

Luckily, New Zealand is a country that supports the arts, and has become a melting pot of great VR minds. We’ve got developers, content creators and businesses all getting in on the action and sharing intel. Working together to grow the pie, not carving off your own slice, is what it’s all about at this stage. We’ve even got the New Zealand Film Commission supporting VR projects – and not just film-based experiences, but games too. It really is a great place to be when it comes to making VR.

Ben Forman and Kat Lintott are the co-founders/directors of Wrestler