Virtual reality has repeatedly been called an “empathy machine,” and filmmakers and advertisers are flocking to the nascent technology to leverage its emotive connectivity. But how accurate is that moniker? Certainly, VR projects can offer viewers immersive, sometimes exhilarating experiences. Its potential to touch audiences is unquestioned, but to do so in its current form requires careful manipulation, experimentation and an ability to think outside the 16:9 box.

Brands, nonprofits and even advertising agencies are investing exorbitant amounts of money in VR activations on the assumption it has a unique capacity to drive empathy. The National Football League is testing VR’s effectiveness for diversity training, allowing players and staff to experience harassment from the perspective of other people, and perhaps feel a bit of the victims’ shame and distress.

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Media agency MEC is giving employees a taste of what it’s like to work in its New York offices with a 360-degree video tour it’s using as a recruitment tool. And Wieden+Kennedy Portland’s VR work for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society lets wheelchair-bound patients experience their favorite activities again, like dancing or surfing. It also lets viewers who’ve never done either activity experience the thrill of movement firsthand.

Multiple research studies show that VR can promote empathy. An experiment conducted earlier this year by Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that young people who experienced a virtual reality simulation from the perspective of an elderly person showed reduced signs of ageism. “Many of our research projects suggest that immersive experiences are fundamentally different from other media in a variety of ways, including empathy building,” said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Interaction Lab and co-founder of Strivr, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that is creating the VR program for the NFL.

study in the UK published this year found VR to be a useful tool to combat depression. Subjects comforted a distressed virtual child before viewing the same interaction from the child’s perspective, an experience that helped alleviate their symptoms. “I don’t know of any other way to obtain the same embodiment effect with whole avatars,” said Chris Brewin, a professor of clinical psychology at University College London and one of the study’s authors. “You can ask people to imagine the situation, but in VR, embodiment appears to happen spontaneously.”

Whether the effectiveness of these kinds of activations is inherent to VR, or simply a byproduct of its novelty, is currently impossible to answer. In fact, there are limitations to VR that some say can actually make it less effective in conveying emotion than traditional forms of storytelling.


Filmmakers working with VR laud the tech’s ability to affect audiences, even triggering physical reactions to virtual stimuli, like ducking out of the way of an image of a thrown object. “It is very powerful as a storytelling device,” said Anrick Bregman, VR and interactive film director at UNIT9, which has created VR films for Lexus and Mini. “Certainly, that sense that your body is connected to the way that you’re experiencing the film — the fact that your actual muscles are activating. It’s a really strong emotive experience, as opposed to viewing a film where you’re flat on the couch.”

Christine Cattano, executive producer at Framestore VR Studio, was surprised by the intensity of viewers’ response to HBO’s Game of Thrones “Ascend the Wall” VR experience, which Framestore created with New York agency Relevant. Viewers ride an elevator up to the top of The Wall before being attacked by flame-throwing enemies.”I’ve produced some really cool shit in the past, but I’ve never seen the reactions of people like that coming out of an experience or even a piece of content that I’ve produced,” she said. “Even the best movies, you don’t see people reacting that way.”

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Still, it’s difficult to say why VR has such strong effects, and whether they’ll persist as audiences become accustomed to it. According to legend, 19th Century audiences leapt out of the way of the oncoming  train in the Lumière brothers’ 1895 film “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” (“The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”). Today, if filmmakers want a physical reaction from audiences, they must ratchet up the gore to “Human Centipede” levels.

The thrill of “being there” could subside as audiences become accustomed to realistic VR experiences. Impressing a mainstream audience with new technology is easy. “It’s something that’s new, and it’s something that people haven’t experienced a lot of. People are just responding to the idea of this transportive device,” Cattano said. “Will we get numb to that? I think as we’ve evolved as humans, we’ve evolved our methods of storytelling, maybe because we’ve gotten desensitized to the methods used before.”


In the meantime, there are plenty of pitfalls for people working with the medium. Like film before it, VR needs to develop a coherent storytelling language. Techniques honed over the last 120 years to engross audiences work well on flat screens but don’t necessarily translate to an environment where writers and directors don’t know which way a viewer will be looking at any given moment.

“You have to throw out your instincts about driving a narrative,” said Adam Lau, creative director at The Barbarian Group, which is preparing to release its first VR project in a few weeks. “You have to be really careful to remember that the audience is one of the characters. They’re there in the scene, and as soon as you trip up that experience, you’ve kind of ruined your story.”

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The technology available can also limit a filmmaker’s vision. Most shoots involve 360-degree cameras comprising multiple wide-angle lenses. “If you think about what makes a really intimate shot or what makes you really take in the emotions that somebody onscreen is feeling, in traditional filmmaking, it’s probably going to be a close-up,” Bregman said. “It’s going to be something that brings you really close to that character and allows you to see some of the really finite movements and expressions on a face, or it could be a close-up of a hand that is fidgeting. There are a lot of visual cues that require you to get really close to the protagonist. In VR camera technology, you simply can’t get that close.”

Bregman’s own VR film for Stella Artois and is a documentary-style piece that shows the impact a new well has on a community in Honduras. While the commentary is touching, the camera never gets closer than about 10 feet from any of the subjects.

Many other tried-and-true film techniques just aren’t available in VR yet. “There’s no pulling focus, there’s no pushing it,” Cattano said. “Even things like cuts need to be dealt with very cautiously. You want to give people enough time to establish the environment that they’re in and feel grounded before you wipe them out of it.”

Though VR proponents point to its interactive capabilities, true interactivity is still only available in a small number of activations. Real-time rendering, which creates the virtual environment in response to a user’s actions and movements, requires serious processing power, three-dimensional models of nearly every object and terrain feature, and content that can handle the unpredictability of an untethered viewer.  


Only as the technology advances will mass audiences be able to experience what most people think of when they hear “virtual reality” — immersive, interactive environments seen from a perspective that may or may not match the viewers’ own body. “We have the ability to empathize with people that are not us very easily,” said Bregman. “We have that skill in our mind, we have that ability to imagine, and by placing you in the body of somebody else and having their world all around you in 360, I think that is about as powerful as it can get in terms of emotive experiences.”  

Along with that technical progression will come new capabilities for immersion. “The new things that people come out with are not just about surfing or flying an airplane,” Lau said. “It’s going to be about feelings that you have — like, ‘experience the feeling of dying’ or ‘experience the feeling of sadness.'”

As with every new medium, virtual reality is finding its footing, and storytellers are incorporating new options and techniques into their repertoires. But while the technology is different, humans are the same. Fundamentally, people seek those connections, and the lessons of previous generations are still useful.

“Even a book,” Bregman said, “can shut out the whole world.”

This story originally appeared in Campaign.