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24Nov

Triggering Empathy with Virtual Reality Storytelling

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

Arousing empathy has almost always been at the core of storytelling. In Virtual Reality (VR), storytellers have found a new tool with which to give viewers an even closer physical sensation of another person’s lived experience. In other words, VR has the possibility of most fully realizing a second person experience of a story: YOU transform into a character in the film, experiencing their visual and auditory sensations in 360 degrees. Director Chris Milk has dubbed virtual reality films “empathy machines” that move and stimulate viewers to social action more than any other media to date. The art world has been exploring this claim in performance pieces and virtual reality films. Meanwhile, scientific researchers are investigating the quantitative and qualitative evidence for and against the empathetic effects of virtual reality. Critics remain skeptical of virtual reality, citing a confusion between immersion and empathy.

Much furor and fuss is being made over virtual reality – but the energy and attitude towards VR is overwhelmingly positive. The most compelling consequence of these studies and experiments is the multi-layered conversation which reveals that VR is no simple subject. Virtual reality is, after all, a part of the complex chain and tradition of storytelling that dates to the beginning of culture and humanity.

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FILM AND PERFORMANCE ART 

Along with director Gabo Arora, Chris Milk and VRSE production company joined the United Nations in making the 2015 VR film Clouds Over Sidra, which tells the story of a young Syrian girl living in a refugee camp in Jordan. The film debuted in January 2015 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, making a strong emotional impact upon the audience. Based on the response to the film in Davos and elsewhere (at a fundraiser in Kuwait, the film raised 3.8 billion USD, nearly double the amount anticipated), Milk believes that VR films can change the world, connecting human beings and altering their perceptions of one another. In a March 2015 TED talk, Milk explains, “So, it’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, become more empathetic, and we become more connected, and ultimately we become more human.”

In The Machine to Be Another, an experiment run by the art collective BeAnotherLab, VR is the foundation of a live performance piece in which participants virtually exchange bodies with the performer, who mimics their movements.  The purpose of the experiment is to better understand the Self by embodying the narrative of the Other. The collective collaborates with neurologists and neuroscientists. They aim to measure empathy in their future projects.

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

Psychologists are also examining how effective VR is at generating empathy in viewers. The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford Lab investigates how test subjects change their behavior after experiencing specific scenarios in virtual reality environments. Lab Manager Shawnee Baughman explains in a February 18, 2016 interview how they have found that virtual reality has the potential to positively influence test subjects’ behavior after experiencing staged scenarios in a VR environment.

In one scenario, participants became Superman and save a child lost in large city. The point of the experiment is not that the participants save the child in the VR scenario, however, but how they were more proactive and helpful to other people in their real lives in the period immediately following the video. The same principle follows with another scenario in which one test group chops down a tree in VR with a haptic device that mimics a saw, and another group chops the tree but without the haptic device. The group that uses the haptic device to “chop” the tree used 20% less paper immediately following the event in a staged, real-life water spill.

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VR is not only positive in the context of its impact on human relations, but also between humanity and the earth. Jeremy Bailensen, Associate Professor of Communication at Stanford University, shares this positive outlook: “With concepts like climate change or deforestation or even pollution, we can use virtual reality to make the relationship between human behavior and the impact on the environment less abstract and more concrete.” By immersing viewers in environments in danger of destruction or industrialization, perhaps the viewer will better appreciate the need to preserve the environment and our resources. Another example we might consider is an audience experiencing the world in VR from the perspective of an animal in the endangered environment – the hope is that by sharing an intimate perspective with the animal in nature, that the viewer will develop a greater capacity to empathize with the natural world.

NUANCED SKEPTICISM

The nuances of virtual reality come to the fore in myriad questions that surround it. In his New York Times article “Want to Know What Virtual Reality Might Become? Look to the Past,” Steven Johnson suggests, rather than Milk’s all-encompassing view of virtual reality films as “empathy machines,” that virtual reality offers the possibility of different kinds of empathy: “perceptual empathy” or “sensory immersion.” It is true that empathy is aroused by our recognition of facial muscle movements, as Johnson points out, so that if we as the viewer cannot see the face of the protagonist whom we are inhabiting, then we lose this traditional key to empathizing with this person’s experience. However, we gain a sensory and immersive experience of the character whose point-of-view we inhabit. Not seeing the person’s face might make a viewer more open as their preconceived notions based on the character’s appearance will not be provoked. Even the omission of the inhabited character’s face can be played with via the use of a mirror that could “reveal” the physical identity of the character after the viewer has been immersed in their story. Additionally, we do not lose the ability to see the faces of the other people featured in the film.

Other critics, such as adjunct professor Sam Gregory of Harvard University, do not believe that virtual reality necessarily equates to empathy. Jennifer Alsever quotes Gregory: “It’s confusing immersion for empathy.” Viewers might become distanced from the subject of the VR film if it’s too violent, and virtual reality’s potential for motivating social action might instead corrode into “poverty tourism.” Meanwhile, Adi Robertson wonders in her article “The UN wants to see how far VR empathy will go” whether VR’s apparently superior effectiveness in motivating social action results not necessarily from VR’s inherent qualities, but its novelty.

Meanwhile, in her article “The Limits of Virtual Reality: Debugging the Empathy Machine,” Ainsley Sutherland points out, “This is the central critique of VR as a successful medium for ‘increasing’ empathy: that it cannot reproduce internal states, only the physical conditions that might influence that.” In response to Sutherland’s criticism, I wonder if she makes an inaccurate division between internal and external states, devaluing the impact of physical conditions on the emotions. If we can experience the physical conditions of living in a refugee camp, would the very conditions not move us, knowing that the young Syrian protagonist is living what is but a simulation for us the viewers? Additionally, the physical conditions elicited by VR can make the story lines and relationships between people within a film more intimate because we physically have the impression of being beside them, and are thus psychologically more able to identify and empathize with them. Physical and emotional conditions are more intimately connected than we might realize.

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COMPLEX POSITIVE POTENTIAL

Despite dimming the potential of virtual reality to increase empathy, such criticisms shed insight on VR’s complexity and further substantiates its potential to effect change. That VR entails a consideration of multi-layered technical, scientific, aesthetic, and theoretical perspectives evidences the vastness of VR filmmaking’s uncharted territory. Can theatre, literature, or cinema more effectively stimulate empathy in an audience for a subject’s internal state than virtual reality? To isolate virtual reality from the tradition of storytelling is simply false. VR is a continuation of the tradition of storytelling, but in a new medium. And as virtual reality filmmakers develop new tools and refine their skills, virtual reality might well evoke the same complexity of inner states as poetry. At DUTCH PICTURE INDUSTRY and VR EXPLORERS, we embrace the newest innovations and are eager to explore the possibilities of virtual reality and its potential to effect positive change in the world. We look forward to evoking empathy in our viewers for the issues and stories that we tell in our films.

17Mar

Comfortably ignorant

Since a few months I have passed my 40’s. I become more and more aware that a lot has changed in those years that I have enjoyed on this planet. More than I could imagine….It brings the question to mind what in the coming 40 years, more will change. What are the game changers and what will be solutions to the big problems that the last decades this so called time of prosperity have brought.

To show you how times have changed and at the same time unravelled the mist of so-called prosperity I take you to my childhood. In my street where I grew up, in Amsterdam in the nineties there was a bakery, a milkman with fresh cheese. A tobacco shop, a grocery store with great fruit and vegetables, and a store that we called ‘’Jantje van alles’’. All these shops had everything that a normal household needed. And these products were packaged for you in paper bags.

With the coming of the supermarkets, these shops disappeared and the immersive introduction of plastic became a reality. And without exaggerating plastic waste became one of the most critical environmental issues in the world. The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is described as a 7th continent  and is a product of our way of living. It is made out of plastic and has direct impact on our ecosystem, livelihood and food chain.

Plastic is still an easy and cheap material to produce for industries and with the coming of 3D printers’, plastic has a bright new future. Knowing that only 10% of plastic is recycled, it’s time to raise the alarm and change our way of production and consumption.

A few years ago I was not so much aware of the impact of these changes. The realisation of fact that all you buy is packaged in plastic. Makes you aware of your role as consumer. With the effect that I can’t do any shopping without having guilty feelings.

Luckily more and more people has the same guilty feelings and are trying to have a more responsible behaviour and reduce considerably their wastes. This is just about new habits to adopt and more reflection when you are doing your groceries or throwing your garbage away.Groenteman

It started with bringing your own bag to the store, and re-used the ones you had. Separate the plastic waste, from the rest of the garbage. But that is not enough. A new mentality is needed, to avoid plastic packaging. By using paper bags and bringing your own sacks again. And even then you can’t avoid paradoxical situations: “should I choose the organic cucumber in plastic packaging” or “the non-organic one without packaging”. When you want to have a responsible behaviour, this kind of decisions matters: you have to choose between supporting this “plastic mania” or eating these pesticides poisoning our lands.

Some still see a positive side to plastics as an opportunity for sustainable development. It is actually a cheap material that we can reuse and reuse again through recycling. Some entrepreneur and communities are inspired to change from a linear to a circular relationship with plastic. This is always motivating to see people thinking out of the box and looking for alternatives solutions for the good of our planet.

An inspiring story is that of Wilco and Edwin from Clean 2 Antarctica, they are convinced we can have a zero waste community. And to prove that they will go on expedition to the South Pole in a vehicle entirely built from recycled plastics and powered by solar energy. This is a way to demonstrate that “Zero Waste” and “Zero emissions” are possible… Imagine the relief of clean air and clean oceans! It is not only their opinion but also that of the younger generation. That is why children in this project to collect plastic waste and shape them through 3D printing in a message to the world. This project is a message of hope showing the promises of plastic recycling and clean technology to live in a cleaner planet. It is just one of many great projects only here in the Netherlands. Possibilities are infinite with recycling and reusing. Each time that you are closing your garbage you can make sure that nothing belong to the recycle bin and ask yourself in which way you could reuse these wastes. You will awake your creative spirit and reduce your environmental impact. Give to your wastes a happy ending, a second life, much more brighter than ending in one bird’s stomach.everything1-1200x686

 

And although older generations and mine will have to a make a major change in their behaviour, the hopeful finding is that when I can’t separate my garbage I feel awkward. As doing something really wrong. That is in my point of view the confirmation that humans a custom animals. And with a little effort we can change the beautiful world around us.

More info on great plastic projects in the Netherlands:

WASTED Laboratory: a neighborhood Laboratory for Plastic Waste Upcycling in Amsterdam Noord

PLASTIC: Promises of a Home-made Future; explores the relation between plastic and the 3D printing market

Precious Plastic: built machines able to build new objects thanks to recycled plastic

 

 

09Oct

Sustainability Day

We strongly believe that this gorgeous planet we live on, should be cherished and fiercely protected by each and every one of us. Of course one single day isn’t enough, to have an impact. But we believe, that even that one day is worth something. At least we are moving in the right direction.

During our productions we use our ‘green policy’ to implement our sustainable vision. This policy sets a few simple, sustainable rules: from separating waste, organic catering, recycling and the use of public transport to using an eco-font in all documents. These rules become habits and the habits become routine, now we have habits that routinely helping the planet we live on.

Our short film ‘Balance’ is our proof that quality and green productions can go hand in hand. ‘Balance’ won the second prize in the Green filmmaking Competition in 2012 and was officially selected as the Dutch submission for the Oscars.

Read more about our ‘green policy’.

What do you have planned for the Day of Sustainability?

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