The past decade has seen the dramatic development of media technology which has fundamentally revolutionized the way we, the audience, consume and relate to stories. Improvements in the technology we use to tell stories have resulted in platforms that simulate reality more seamlessly than ever and no phenomenon better encapsulates this shift towards immersion in media better than virtual reality. This field of technology employs goggles which project imagery which allow an audience member to become fully immersed in a narrative. The heightened immersion in stories achieved by virtual reality technology has the power to make audience members connect on deeper levels with the characters in their stories. Through forging deeper connections between audience and character vis-à-vis immersion in otherwise inaccessible narratives virtual reality has the power to affect profound social change.
Despite the relative youth of the virtual reality medium, numerous VR filmmakers have explored the technology’s power to inspire compassion. While the tactics of these filmmakers have varied, a clear trend has emerged of creatives leveraging the immersive power of virtual reality technology in order to arouse sympathy for important social dilemmas.
One impactful implementation of virtual reality technology can be seen in the Rotary Club’s campaign against Polio. The organization has created powerful virtual reality experiences one of which places the audience member in the perspective of an innocent person in a war-torn area as they search for medical attention for their case of Polio. In the experience, entitled One Small Act, the viewer is able to change their perspective by shifting their head and in doing so is able to become fully immersed in the shocking world that is reality for so many. The Rotary Club has shown that stories told through the medium of virtual reality have an unequaled power to illustrate the suffering and hardships which confront others and inspire sympathy and a desire to help amongst audiences who experience this form of story.
Another extraordinarily powerful manifestation of virtual reality technology for social awareness can be found in the United Nation’s award-winning virtual reality experience, Clouds Over Sidra. This experience follows a 12-year-old girl as she goes about her everyday life in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp for Syrian refugees. The video which puts the audience in an innocent child’s point-of-view inspires intense sympathy. We, the audience, are empowered to explore the inhumanity and abject poverty of this innocent girl and her people’s living conditions. A Westerner who has never witnessed firsthand the conditions of these innocent Syrian masses, displaced by the geo-political currents of their day can suddenly walk a day in a Syrian refugee’s shoes with the magic that is virtual reality. The ability of this technology to use immersion to bridge geographic, political, racial and economic borders and educate people about the condition of others is the true transformative power of technology.
As the technology of virtual reality grows into maturity and its usage becomes more and more widespread, it is more imperative than ever to understand the strengths of the technology and how those strengths can be used to actualize a better, more equitable world. VR experiences from the Rotary Club, United Nations and numerous others have illustrated that the medium’s strengths of immersion and transcendence can be leveraged to create experiences which free the audience from the bonds of time and space and allow them to share the experiences of people completely unlike themselves. By enabling its audience to experience the existence of those affected by various social problems, virtual reality has the power to inspire sympathy and compassion as well as the desire to help. The exciting potential of virtual reality is that it can allow us to experience each other’s unique realities and in doing so deepen our respect, love and compassion for all of humanity.