Why Nobody Wants Virtual Reality (Part 3)

The VR "empathy machine" everyone keeps promising starts to rust

This is Part 3 in a series “Why Nobody Wants Virtual Reality.” In Part 1, I argued VR was overly charismatic. In Part 2, I discussed sports culture and VR.

Empathy. No doubt you’ve seen the word lately. It promises to make us more complete humans, through technology! Do I need to feel more empathy for a tree, though? How about the ocean? Coral reefs?

This is a post-mortem on what I’ve learned about the VR “empathy machine” in context of studying environmentalism and touring at international film festivals. I argue that there are three main reasons why the genre hasn’t elevated VR to more mainstream success, and in some cases have held it back:

  1. Empathy rhetoric is confusing and gets mixed up with artist egos

  2. Empathy applied to the environment isn’t straightforward

  3. Hollywood might be distributing empathy to people that already have it

The Feels Machine

Empathy is having its day. Fast Company blames the design world, saying the word appears “six times as often as it did in 2004.” Culturally the word is now colloquial for many other mechanisms like perspective-taking, compassion, leadership, or even general emotional intelligence.

It’s hard to say why virtual reality has become the platform of choice for generating empathy in its users. Maybe we can blame Chris Milk’s widely viewed 2015 TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” His TED talk likely rallied a group of artists and documentary filmmakers already keen on progressive missions to experiment with using VR directly for social good. The argument goes, if we can immersive viewers in an experience instead of them passively watching a film, they’ll be more likely to take action on issues like factory farming, immigration, or incarceration. Milk is a good storyteller, and an even better entrepreneur, but not an expert psychologist. What do the research experts say?

Social scientists claim that VR empathy experiences do work, in a sort of constrained way. During my time managing Stanford’s VHIL, we made subjects chop down trees, become a cow, and use the superpower of flight to save a lost child. In laboratory settings, the observed behavioral effects are slightly positive. But we don’t know how long the effects last, how they conflict with other motivations and values, or how people would opt into these experiences on their own outside a lab. In other words, they lack “ecological validity” to show they also happen out in the world. New research is trying to answer questions about longitudinal effects, but there’s a larger issue here.

Many of these approaches to empathy attempt to achieve a preconceived state of more empathy, as opposed to teaching the thinking skills needed to get there.

Paul Bloom, a moral philosopher, reiterates this and calls the entire VR empathy rhetoric ridiculous. In his book, Against Empathy, Bloom argues that we instead should be focusing on what he calls “rational compassion,” which is a critical thinking framework for prioritizing moral decisions. His beef with VR is that it comes down to genuine feelings of safety and security, which are hard to replicate from wearing a VR headset. Sure I can experience the perceptual signals (sights/sounds) of a refugee camp, but that doesn’t mean I can feel what it’s like to be a starving refugee without a home and a safety net. Ultimately, I can take my headset off whenever I want and return to the comfortable confines of my domestic American life.

Alisha Gaines, a professor of African-American literature at Florida State University said in an NYT Op-Ed:

If for 90 minutes I run around and look for the lantern in the window, what do I take from this into my everyday life? This is playing a slave, not an enslaved person. The humanity gets evacuated out of it.

Many of the VR experiences in the empathy genre carry this tension. Often I feel like I’m roleplaying a marginalized person, and any agency awarded to me further dissociates me from their human experience in an undeserved way. Allowing for interactively complicates history, just like simulating slavery can go terribly wrong.

I tend to side more with Bloom here, although his arguments feel too philosophical, leaving little practical guidance for how to get there. Rose Eveleth offers a more valuable place to start with her comprehensive Topic review of the limits of VR empathy. She argues that these experiences are of course affecting, but are mostly exhausting and that “well-meaning VR empathy experiences might come with some hidden costs.” Eveleth describes a thought experiment where empathy experiences are prescribed in the future to “protect us from our worst selves.”

There’s a deeper irony in that much of this content is being created by people that don’t seem particularly empathetic. In my personal interactions with Milk and other creators at events over the years, they’re not people that strike me as posters for empathy. This could be largely surface misinterpretation on my part, but anytime we talk about artists creating art, we can’t ignore the egos at stake. When Milk graciously offered notes on my own VR experience prior to its premiere, he spent much of the time talking about his Kanye West music video. Then he offered his girlfriend as an editor to fix my color grading.

Hollywood rewards creators like this. They’re able to fundraise and make projects happen that I never could, but I’m not sure we should be handing the keys to The Feels Machine over to them.

Nowhere is this ego more apparent than with Hollywood director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (of Birdman and The Revenant fame), with his sprawling installation Carne y Arena. The roughly 7-minute experience puts the user alongside a fleeing immigrant caught by border patrol. With installations in DC and LA, it was advertised as a chance for politicians to experience immigration first-hand. If the politics of the last four years are any indication, changing someone’s mind on an issue is a deeply complex and counter-intuitive process.

About 7,000 people experienced Carne y Arena’s DC installation. Iñárritu himself seemed to have a bizarre grasp of its limited reach. Despite the impossible logistics of seeing the thing, he encouraged people to experience it more than once, saying “The first time there’s so much to assimilate, the second time you discover. There are many secrets. The second time is like sex.”

Of course, what’s more egoistical of Hollywood than comparing VR to sex?

The Dissonance Machine

Empathy for the environment isn’t as straightforward as the “rational compassion” that Bloom proposes. Like Thomas Nagel once asked, what is it like to be a bat? How do we consider plant consciousness? Should trees have moral standing?

Early on in my graduate career, the late Ken Taylor (Philosophy Talk) told us that philosophy was the only field where you exit knowing less than when you began. After studying environmental ethics, I gotta say this is true. At the end of every ethics class, you could visibly feel the exasperation of students in the room. Everyone was full of knowledge about different theories, but were left with no clear direction in how to make decisions. This is why The Good Place is such a joy to watch as a show, it exposes the ridiculousness of moral philosophy on average citizens, just trying to do their best.

One approach to building pro-social behaviors for the environment is to just take people there. Place-based education loves field trips, despite it being a logistical nightmare for schools and teachers. If the legacy of the Magic School Bus is any indicator, something resonates culturally about the idea of an immersive field trip. The Smithsonian even claims that “stereographs were the original virtual reality” as far back as 1838, which became popular as an alternative way to experience a place.

But does a field trip to a place promise to create more empathy for it? More widely, research has shown the restorative power of nature and green spaces on happiness. BBC released a whitepaper study that claimed their nature documentaries can make people happier, but that’s not exactly the same as creating empathy or compassion.

Physical trips to a place, like in ecotourism, carries costs. They can destroy ecosystems in small and large ways, such as pollution or the fossil fuels powering travel. In theory, virtual reality could provide benefits without all the costs, which I explained during a Salon interview:

If you’re a millennial who cares about environment and doesn’t want, or can’t afford, to waste jet fuel flying around the world — something that affects the very reef you’re traveling to see — you may be willing to pay $.99 to have that virtual experience, one that’s more ecologically sustainable.

Immersion of any experience though, digital or physical, is also its downfall. I call this the “experience paradox” and even the Magic School Bus comically touches on it with one of its characters Arnold. He says during most of the adventures, “I knew I should have stayed home today.” I feel for Arnold, because I was a lot like him as a kid: shy, cautious, and careful.

As part of my graduate work to better understand field trips as a tool, I spent much time on the Oceanic Society’s whale watching expeditions to evaluate their environmental behavior outcomes. With whale watching for example, people get sick a lot, and don’t always see whales. Nobody sums up this paradox more than one kiddo I encountered during this research. She was so violently sick that between vomiting spurts and tears, she sadly cried, “Mommy, I hate whales.”

Virtual reality doesn’t solve this paradox, it merely replicates it. The Atlantic echoed this sentiment, claiming that VR’s high level of immersion can leave users with what they call an “existential hangover.”

Another approach to building empathy for the environment is through direct messaging and knowledge transfer. Politics, unfortunately, are deeply entrenched in most environmental behaviors. Forbes covers this tension, like when VHIL hosted a congressman in a climate change VR experience only to have him call it “Democratic Science.” Bailenson goes on to say:

We put a lot of time and effort in and just the notion that polarization is high enough that marine science is discounted as being Democratic, it was not a high point.

The pandemic is drawing much attention to cognitive dissonance, which is the psychological process where we make a decision first, and then justify its reasons afterwards in order to reduce its discomfort. Its power has emerged in the messaging and repercussions around wearing masks. Doubling down on an issue sometimes has less to do with the issue itself, and the dissonance that comes with being wrong.

Rhetoric and language matter when it comes to changing minds, and the costs of dissonance are high. Visceral messaging backfires all the time. The whale watching research I mentioned earlier? It found that naturalists often overprescribe pro-environmental behaviors, like when they describe sea turtles choking on plastic bags. It doesn’t work.

One art critic summarized Iñárritu’s VR experience best by saying:

Basically, I don’t think it will change many minds; what I do think is that it might ratify beliefs that people already have, and therefore inspire in those people a deeper conviction to act—but only if what it means to act is clearly defined.

Instead of rewiring people’s brains to be more empathetic, maybe what we’re really doing with persuasive media experiences like VR is manifesting larger behaviors out of people that were already empathetic. Instead, we need to find a way to reach and appeal to the people who aren’t, which comes down to distribution.

The Distribution Machine

The Crystal Reef was my Stanford University graduate thesis, a two-part VR field trip that took users underwater to teach them about ocean acidification and climate change. Under my creative direction, VHIL created two VR experiences, one 360-film viewable on a Gear VR device and the other a fully interactive app using an HTC Vive device. Both experiences premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, and were the first ever immersive experiences to both world premiere and collect university research data from audiences at a major film festival.

The New York Times summarized the experiences by writing:

“The Crystal Reef” from the virtual reality lab at Stanford University has two films — one is a standard look at the problem of ocean acidification, but the other lets you deep-sea dive yourself and collect samples from the ocean floor. Yes, you make a swimming motion with your arms to make this happen, which might make you look a little ridiculous to anyone nearby who’s not encased in a viewing helmet.

The experiences were inspired by a real reef in Italy called Ischia, where natural carbon vents underwater acidify its reefs. It’s a sort of visual metaphor, which the earth sciences could use more of to explain its complicated systems like climate change to citizens. In The Crystal Reef, audiences have an expert marine scientist guide them through the actual reef, which I shot in 360 on-location in Italy. In The Crystal Reef: Interactive, audiences swim around a “digital twin” of the reef recreated in 3D, searching for snails and octopus on a scientific scavenger hunt.

Let’s be clear here, I’m not an artist. It’s easy to creatively excuse many projects as “experiments,” but these were legitimate research experiments to see if audiences would care more about climate change. Being an academic project, our budget was tight and our creative team composed mostly of undergraduates. Neither VR experience is very good as a result, and don’t hold up particularly well years later. The fact that we were allowed to ask research questions at a film festival like Tribeca was the major pioneering step, not the experiences themselves.

Vice’s Creator Project interviewed me about this, and I said:

“This is the first time I think anyone’s mass-collected data like this at a film festival…We collected 500 or 600 subjects-worth of data, which is huge for us. We would normally get about 100 in a lab.

What I didn’t know at the time of premiering these experiments at Tribeca was how important festivals are to the distribution machine of Hollywood. These events are where films go to sell. Reaching festival audiences with a mission of raising awareness or creating social impact is only secondary to the goal of selling film rights. This makes sense if you want to reach a larger audience, which most documentaries and films do.

I’m not arguing here that art doesn’t have impact. If creating empathy is the intent though, we should be asking harder questions than mere “festival reach.” See the following discussion at the recent Facebook Connect, where this tends to happen:

The data we collected from The Crystal Reef at Tribeca showed that despite the experiences being a powerful call to action, they didn’t translate into measurable behavior beyond a festival. For viewers that wanted more information (approximately a third), we gave them pamphlets to a website with a tracked link, and not a single person followed up. This might say more about the format of paper handouts than audience behavior, but given how many pamphlets still dominate outreach events, it’s a valuable insight!

My own wider distribution of The Crystal Reef happened through a few platforms, the first being Time Magazine’s LIFE VR for a special Time for Kids Earth Day issue. The deal required me to find an agent to navigate the overwhelming legal redlining process that comes from contract negotiation. It was also distributed on Google Expeditions (recently deprecated), Inception VR, and 2000 hotel rooms in Asia via Tink Labs (now shuttered). Total reach from all platforms was roughly 350K unique views, which is at least bigger than a single festival.

The Crystal Reef also resonated with festival selection juries at a time when environmental VR content was limited, and it went on to tour at many places abroad (Scotland, England, Italy, Luxembourg and Australia). While I definitely enjoyed traveling to premiere it, I would argue my carbon costs of globe trotting negated any audience impact of the experiences.

Part of the problem is that the distribution system for VR is stuck somewhere between Hollywood’s traditional model and a venture-backed one. That doesn’t mean big deals don’t happen, as was the case in 2018 with the seven-figure sale of the VR experience SPHERES to CityLights. These deals in VR are anomalies though, with their funding often originating from venture capital sources anyways (Oculus and Intel both originally funded SPHERES). Museums and galleries might offer a better glimpse of a distribution model here to other artists and creators, like with Carne y Arena, but given their suffering during the pandemic I don’t know how sustainable that future now is.

A Swift Conclusion

VR needs all the mainstream help it can get. While I agree with the historian Yuval Harari that we should strive to “care about human suffering,” the reality is there’s a ceiling on the amount of suffering I can handle. Life in the shadow of global pandemic already feels debilitating. The last thing I want to do at the end of the day is put on a headset and take on more suffering, even if it might be good for me. I’m probably going to watch Gilmore Girls for the tenth time. There’s already a growing fatigue among VR creators who are tiring of the empathy genre, perhaps because audiences are largely returning to reruns of The Office or Friends.

Milk’s own VR app, With.in, is full of empathy experiences, but his production company Here Be Dragons has mostly shuttered and the company recently pivoted to personal fitness. If Milk’s own companies are any signal, the “ultimate empathy machine” he promised is difficult to deliver.

Celebrity and influencer culture might matter here more than academics and artists think. Instead of hoping audiences opt into more pro-environmental media on Netflix or the Oculus App Store, the messaging instead should find them. Less Leonardo jet-setting and more Brie Larson vlogging on YouTube.

See the following video about Taylor Swift’s legs and how they might solve the climate change messaging crisis by learning to “charm us into goodness”:

Next up in Part 4, I’ll talk about the the gaming industry. I’ll analyze how Facebook doubled down on gamers as its primary demographic for its Oculus platform, and what that means for its potential mainstream future.


The views represented above are my own, not of my company Blue Trot Group or any of its partners, affiliates, or clients.