“Empathy machines”: how V.R. is humanising digital storytelling

by on 3rd October 2016

Unless you’ve spent a tremendous proportion of this year under a rock (actually not such a bad move, in retrospect), you’ve likely picked up on the fervour for ‘immersive media’ that’s making itself apparent left, right and centre. While much of 2016 will be remembered negatively, let’s not forget that it’s also the year that Pokémon Go fast made augmented reality a routine interaction for its tens of millions of global users.

Progress in the engineering of virtual reality has also stepped up a gear. Chris Milk, a fellow regarded in some creative circles as the first virtual reality auteur, now observes that in spite of the technology’s predictable, sometimes gimmicky applications, gradually, we’re:

“Starting to move out of the technical ‘wow’ phase of this and into ‘what does this mean for humanity?'”

It’s this specific development which has me, as something of a tech geek – and even more as somebody curious about people – most excited. I can’t help considering how stories told using the most immersive medium in existence can change the way we view the world and, more importantly, each other.

Now seems as good a time as any to start figuring out some answers.

Not everyone’s convinced…

The New York Times recently published an article that describes the global community as one teetering on the edge of a ‘Virtual Reality Rabbit Hole.’ In the piece, NYT’s tech critic, Farhad Manjoo, explains how:

“Even in the most immersive of media experiences… your sense of where your hands are is an ever-present comfort… But then you don virtual reality goggles, and your hands disappear. So does the rest of the world around you. You are bereft, and it is very, very unsettling.”

Manjoo’s key complaint of the V.R. experience rests chiefly on its incurable failure to harmonise the real and the digital. The subject becomes cognitively estranged from the immediate world whilst they embrace a medium which, by design, “does not allow for multitasking” – a feature somewhat prerequisite as we come to expect gadgets’ natural and seamless integration into our daily lives.

This isn’t the only problem people are voicing about V.R.; even its greatest proponents – Oculus, HTC and Samsung – have encountered widespread criticism for pushing out a lack of content that hasn’t expanded in parallel with their headsets. Aside from Google Cardboard that retails at £15/$20, this hardware also happens to be pretty expensive. But, before it enters the mainstream, the palpable hype surrounding this medium is arguably less to do with its current technical limitations and more to do with what the experience itself represents for humanity’s future.

Google cardboard

The ‘suspension of disbelief’ and why abstract mediums are so damn enthralling

We already know this much: V.R. is a promise to make our wildest imagination and the here and now one and the same. Playing upon humankind’s insatiable impulse to escape the familiar, V.R. is only our most recent and successful attempt to shake off the mortal coil and revel in a thrillingly alien simulation. Samuel Taylor Coleridge meanwhile remarked how Art can be a gateway to alternative states of being. In 1817, he suggested that a subject’s willing suspension of disbelief caused them to greater engage with meaning in far-fetched narratives that they nonetheless regarded with a pinch of poetic faith. People are happy to ignore the implausibility of a scenario in order to discover the human interest within.

Coleridge’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ principle can go a fair way to explaining what’s so special about V.R. It presents Art as a route to realities which otherwise exist beyond our own minds and comprehension. Whilst our everyday means of communication – language – is inherently flawed, the abstract and interpretive nature of Art allows it to bypass (mis)translation and freely resonate with thought and experience. It’s the reason why traditional artforms retain their popularity. It’s the reason why the player-led narratives of Heavy Rain and No Man’s Sky provoke such a profound emotional connection. And it’s the reason why immersive technology is becoming our best chance yet of telling humanity’s most compelling stories.

So it’s a mistake to try to rationalise the virtual world by chasing within it evidence of our current reality. Manjoo’s preoccupation with where his hands should be, and aren’t, is as misguided as scrutinising an illusionist’s method, or figuring out who Jack the Ripper actually was; in deconstructing the myth, we forfeit the magic. It’s only when we truly embrace the quirks, the quaint impossibilities of this ‘almost real’ environment, that it is most capable to surprise and delight.

Here’s a  bold claim:

Its appeal to individuals aside, Milk’s vision of the future is one in which virtual reality also facilitates the “democratization of human experience.” Clearly enough, an increasing commodification of V.R. media would strengthen our capacity to identify with one another; its championing of the shared and unmediated perspective already “breeds understanding” between a people whose geography, culture and experience is richly diverse. In short, it’s this “ultimate empathy machine” that could cause us to connect – like never before.

Next-gen storytelling: the good parts

The amazing potential of V.R. storytelling is demonstrated in the work of RYOT, an immersive media company of humanitarian aid workers, first responders and filmmakers acquired by The Huffington Post in April of this year. Founded in 2012, RYOT operates on the very conviction that:

“VR & 360 are the perfect medium to bring people inside a news story”

These technologies are vital components of RYOT’s “Next-Generation Storytelling”, a form of journalism which the team ultimately believes can “Ignite Change” in our broken world.


RYOT, Welcome to Aleppo Credit:

RYOT’s productions address the plights of individuals and communities whose realities are far removed from those of privileged Westerners. The Oscar-nominated Body Team 12, for example, is a short film about Liberia’s 2014 Ebola epidemic, while The Crossing is a more recent chronicling of the refugee crisis in Greece.

RYOT, 'For My Son'

RYOT, For My Son

Speaking about The Crossing, Arianna Huffington shows how this purposeful fusion of technology and storytelling fosters empathy between the victims and their global audience:

“We were able to put flesh and blood on a human crisis that, for far too many around the world, had become an abstraction.”

The project, like RYOT’s extended filmography, causes viewers to confront the reality of the world’s most desperate circumstances. Placing us firmly in the shoes of the protagonist and broadcasting in a voice that’s none but their own, these sensitively produced  V.R. stories make previously unimaginable situations – and the people they concern – close enough to grasp.


Although V.R. is an imperfect replica of life, it is nonetheless an intensely powerful medium for storytelling. Intimately connected with the suspension of disbelief principle and sidestepping the inauthenticity of traditional media, this technology, by its very nature, makes a supremely honest and impactful narrator.

Projects such as those led by RYOT and apps like A Walk Through Dementia are just the beginning; in opening such a gripping dialogue about important social issues, they’re making us better, more empathetic human beings.

With V.R, the sights and sounds of our physical world are replaced with those coded into an artificial narrative – sure – but, with the right content, we can feel something new, too.


  1. Nice to link the old with the new and speculate on the power of the newer still.

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