In an age where humanity is increasingly lamenting its diminishing capacity for compassion and empathy, do you know what strikes me as an industry VR could be really transformative for? News media and journalism.
The experience of VR is an incredibly immersive one, the user is more kinetically involved with what happens which can, and does, produce involuntary physical effects for the user in the real world. It’s not unknown for people to dive out the way of oncoming virtual objects, in fact this is part of the thrill of VR, that it comes so close to giving the user the actual experience of performing these acts that are playing out from the relative safety of the couch.
Watching TV or otherwise consuming media is generally always more of a passive affair. In the age of second screening it could almost be considered subliminal. As we increasingly intake multiple streams of content and our brains work balance the resulting noise into a long flat signal; only the agitation of the day reinforced, in our own personal echo chamber produces emotion. Usually negative ones.
I’ve long had a bizarre saying “The worst thing you know is the worst thing you know”. Other people have probably said it better i.e. “Be kind, because everybody has travelled a long road” or whatever. But mine gets to the point more.
If someone says to you imagine the worst thing possible, your brain is constrained to what it has actually experienced. It can’t imagine feeling something it hasn’t felt. Recalling emotion is something we do with reference to what we know. In a world where increasingly everyone has experienced life differently to you, it’s no wonder there is growing discord. I remember arguing with a friend who drives freight between UK and Europe, him finding refugees trying to get onto trucks to board from Calais to the UK a nuisance. My response of “they’re not doing it for a laugh, they are running from a f**king war” falling on deaf ears. But in a way, I was failing to relate to his experience, which must be a bit weird, of people trying to get onto a moving lorry, like it’s a Mad Max film; as much as he was completely failing to understand the context that had brought these people to that moment.
So you can see why it’s a bit of an ask for a mid 20’s something kid, didn’t see or can’t remember the twin towers coming down, who’s biggest daily irritation has been when Xbox Live has been down for a week, to understand that for some people the post-apocalyptic dramas they watch on TV, mirror closely the daily lives of some guy trying to get his family out of Syria. If you ask that person what the worst thing that’s ever happened to them sure they may have had a bad time at some point in there lives. But war? I’m pretty sure when you’re in the middle of it it’s not a good time.
So, the worst thing you know is the worst thing YOU know. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing.
Now, a personal anecdote, another friend is in the Marines. He’s been there a while and did a couple of tours of that whole Afghanistan thing. Obviously we worried when he left and he came back okay. Great. Whilst he was there he spent time at a place called Kajaki Dam, at some point this place was also visited by Ross Kemp doing one of his insane trips to bad places. My friend wasn’t actually shown on the show, but the Ross followed the soldiers on their day to day. Unfortunately on one day, a soldier was killed by an IED, Ross’ time was cut short there and they moved to another place.
Now, I’ve watched all these Ross Kemp documentaries and nothing touched me as much as this one. The others were passive experiences. This one, because I knew my friend was there at the time, made the experience more visceral. I’ve watched it a few times over the years and it always makes me emotional. The rest of the series, I feel less emotion towards. Films on the subject of war I have less emotion towards. Other documentaries less emotion towards.
So this one was different. There was increased empathy from me, because I had a personal attachment certainly, but that personal attachment led me to become more engaged with the experience.
And this is where VR comes back in. If we are to understand each other better we need to experience better. Being able to be virtually in the middle of the craziness will lead to if not greater compassion, certainly greater understanding, which can only lead to eventual empathy for a given situation. Am I advising giving everyone PTSD? Maybe, maybe in a way I am. But a tool is neither good nor bad. Good things or bad things may happen with any use of any tool, whether it’s the internet or a hammer. It is quite literally what we make of it.
Imagine if you will, the effect of 360 degree cameras in an actual war zone. I’m talking Robert Kappa in a war zone. Hell, we could even do it safely these days with drones to film the drones killing innocents as we sit visors adorned watching it from the other side of the world whilst eating Doritos…. Jesus, actually, that got pretty Black Mirror, pretty quickly.
Okay, so in some ways, it’s a pretty bad look, but that depends on how it effects society. As I mentioned, we’re looking for increased empathy and if that’s what it results in then maybe somewhere along the way there is a kernel of positivity waiting to be unlocked.