Virtual Reality & Documentary Filmmaking: What’s Next? Has Society Become Desensitized?

“What if I could present you a story that you remember with your entire body and not just with your mind?” asks journalist and virtual reality pioneer Nonny De La Peña.
When it comes to VR, science fiction, gaming, and simulated reality have the potential to really change up the way we experience entertainment as well as storytelling. De La Peña’s Ted Talk “The Future of News? Virtual Reality” centers around  the idea of creating an alternate or parallel reality to convey news through that is just as engaging as a video game, increasing the chance that immersive journalism will appeal to the ethos of the masses in a way never achieved before.
Unfortunately, the nature and format of today’s news broadcasts move too fast for VR technology to keep up with, as stories that unfold and are reported on might stay in the news cycle for a day or two at most. Creating an accurate, immersive experience can take weeks, meaning that this new form of journalism is going to have to cut its teeth on subject matter and issues that are more static before they can cater to the dynamacy of daily current events. Documentary filmmaking is a great medium to begin this journey, allowing for content creators to take their time and become immersed in issues themselves, so as to more accurately recreate and reconvey that immersion. Here are a few examples of, as well as possible caveats to, this revolutionary new platform.
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How “Real” Could It Be?

Nonny De La Peña’s quest to change the face of journalism really took off in 2012, when her piece titled “Hunger in L.A.” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. This was the first experience of its kind, recreating a situation in which a diabetic homeless man in an overcrowded foodbank line collapses from low blood sugar and begins seizing on the sidewalk.
“I wanted to do a piece about hunger,” says De La Peña in her Ted Talk. “Families in America are going hungry, food banks are overwhelmed, and they’re often running out of food. Now, I knew I couldn’t make people feel hungry, but maybe I could figure out a way to get them to feel something physical.”
She then shows people with VR goggles on, experiencing this immersive recreation. They have a wide berth of space to move around in, but all seem transfixed on the spot where they perceive the seizing man would be in their simulated reality. Some step around this spot gingerly, careful not to “step on” the virtual man. Almost universally, people reacted somewhat empathetically.
“…this kind of reaction ended up being the kind of reaction we saw over and over and over: people down on the ground trying to comfort the seizure victim, trying to whisper something into his ear or in some way help, even though they couldn’t,” says De La Peña. “And I had a lot of people come out of that piece saying, ‘Oh my God, I was so frustrated. I couldn’t help the guy,’ and take that back into their lives.”

The Empathy Machine, For Better or Worse

People like De La Peña hope that letting people experience the news instead of just reporting it to them will drive change via empathetic response. The recent hurricanes that have devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico offer great examples of how this process could blossom. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have caused between $150 billion and $200 billion in damages, while Hurricane Maria crippled Puerto Rico, leaving many without food, water, or housing. While immersive journalism at its peak could have helped garner a more immediate response, critical help in all three of these areas will be needed for years to come. Social workers in particular “remain on the scene for months or even years after a traumatic event to assist members of the local population suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related disorders,” according to Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.
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While it’s hard to measure the impact of documentary filmmaking beyond social media activity, people like De La Peña have proven that immersive experiences evoke empathetic responses. The logical conclusion would be that a higher amount of empathetic responses will result in further action beyond simply raising awareness, compelling people to act and help in whatever way they can. Unfortunately, some people worry that the use of VR as an empathy machine is played out, or even that it doesn’t create true empathy, but rather the “illusion of empathy”.
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Game developer Robert Yang recently published an argument against VR as an “empathy machine,” writing that “if you won’t believe someone’s pain unless they wrap an expensive 360 video around you, then perhaps you don’t actually care about their pain…  In this political sense, VR can’t actually offer any embodiment, transparency, or immediacy to anyone. At best, VR can only offer the illusion of empathy.”
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At worst, some believe, VR can create empathy that is misused or exploited. At 2017’s Tribeca Film Festival, the VR film Extravaganza explores this premise. Adi Robertson, writing for The Verge, explains:
“In Extravaganza, a media executive tries out the headset, which he’s been told is an ‘empathy machine.’ But all it plays are puppet shows full of (literally) balloon-breasted women and crude racial stereotypes, who are slaughtered — to the man’s amusement — by a monocled 19th century explorer. According to creator Ethan Shaftel, it critiques the way that a new medium can reproduce old forms of bigotry. “This puppet show was clearly made for people like him, by people like him, and it’s certainly not making the world any better,” said Shaftel. The technology might be new, but “this show’s already been made and programmed, and will never change.”

Society Desensitized

Virtual RealityOne of the worst possible outcomes of widespread VR in documentary filmmaking and journalism is that people may simply become desensitized to content which they would normally evoke empathy, due to overexposure to and even manipulative tactics in immersive media. Citizen journalism, for example, now utilizes video captured by those who have experienced current events to convey news from a bystander’s perspective. “Media outlets have begun to harness the unbridled power of citizen journalism by establishing social media profiles, engaging with their viewers and attempting to grow online communities,” writes Anastasia Passaris on the Clipchamp Blog.

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This is the same type of footage that was streamed live on Facebook, capturing the aftermath of Philando Castille’s fatal shooting in Minnesota, as well as the events unfolding during the devastating festival shooting by Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas. These user-shot videos containing violent, terrifying images, are becoming commonplace in social media feeds as well as on the news. Would further immersion help the average viewer truly understand how that situation felt? Or would these representations be treated as perverted facsimiles of sorts, that allow users to enter and experience those situations without having to level with the profound consequences and emotions that follow said experiences?

While it’s uncertain what type of impact VR journalism and documentaries will have, it is certain that people like Nonny De La Peña will continue to strive to steer the field in a positive direction. However, as VR movies and video games emerge that replicate immersive violence and hardship for the sake of entertainment, those waters could get muddy, further blurring the lines between what is “virtual” and what is “reality”. Nevertheless, this technology represents a way to share and remember experiences at a level never achieved before, bringing with it the potential to make the most connected societies in human history actually feel that way: connected.
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Author: Andy is a health, tech, and futurism enthusiast from the outskirts of the lush, Pacific Northwest. When he’s not writing, you can find him working on his latest audio mix, going on a run, or rolling d20s with friends. Follow him on Twitter @AndyO_TheHammer.