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Virtual Reality: Real Impact?

March 21, 2016

Working at the nexus of storytelling and social change, we at ProSocial are fascinated by what Malcolm Gladwell calls tipping points: moments when significant movements or cultural shifts are sparked, creating immense change. 

By many accounts, it seems that virtual reality—computer-generated experiences that enable users to feel immersed in or interact with a simulated environment—may be reaching a tipping point.

Virtual reality filmmakers are exploring the intersection of entertainment and empathy
This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured 30 virtual reality films, both documentary and narrative.

Perspective: The Misdemeanor, which portrays two white police offers conducting a traffic stop with two black men, allows viewers to watch the interaction unfold from the perspective of each of the four people involved.

6x9: An Immersive Experience of Solitary Confinement captures how it feels for inmates to be alone in solitary confinement for 23 hours of the day as they grapple with staying in the present and not falling victim to surreal thinking.

For Kiya, in which two sisters intervene to stop their other sister’s abuse by an ex-boyfriend, the filmmakers incorporate audio from a 911 call made during an actual domestic violence incident.

Other virtual reality films such as theBlu: Encounter, which literally and figuratively dives deep into the ocean, and Condition One, which explores endangered species, are designed to showcase the world’s natural wonders.

As film production companies start to create virtual reality divisions and media outlets explore VR as a frame for news stories, filmmakers are entering into an experimental period to define the best practices of the genre.

ProSocial worked with Sandy Smolan, co-director of the virtual reality New York Times Op Doc The Click Effect, to provide outreach services for his (non-VR) film The Human Face of Big Data. “It’s like going back to the first days of cinema,” he said in an interview. “All the tools that we now use as filmmakers, somebody had to figure out—the dolly shot, the close up, fades, dissolves—and that same line now has to be developed with VR.”

Gear is here
Last June, about a third of Americans ages 19 to 49 hadn’t heard of existing VR devices, according to a survey cited by Business Insider. But that’s likely changing: Last November, the New York Times presented subscribers with Google Cardboards, and in February, Samsung Gear VR was featured in prominent ads during the Oscars. These enable turning a smartphone into a virtual reality device that can be used with VR YouTube videos or games; there are also standalone headsets such as HTC’s Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift.

Social impact is evident
“People don’t usually have empathy for someone they see getting shot on TV, but when you are actually placed in the first person point of view of a boy seeing your own brother get shot right in front of you—that is impactful,” Morris May, founder and CEO of VR studio Specular Theory, noted in Fortune.

UNICEF and Amnesty International have both reported an uptick in contributions as a result of sharing virtual reality films designed to raise awareness of war torn Syria.

“You can see when people watch [the virtual reality film] that they are truly immersed in another world,” Katherine Crisp, head of strategy and innovation at UNICEF UK, told Marketing Week. “On removing the headsets some people find it very emotional, some cry, some are moved into silence and others ask what can I do to help?”

It remains to be seen whether virtual reality will live up to the promise that its proponents envision. In the meantime, we’re interested to consider how the powerful tool of immersion into someone else’s world could make a world of difference.

Additional info
For more on gear: Polygon’s “The Complete Guide to Virtual Reality in 2016 (So Far)"

For more on virtual reality’s potential uses by brands: Tech Crunch’s “What the Growth of Virtual Reality Will Mean for Brands”