Earlier this year in a series of posts called “On Being A Cyborg“, I wrote about various technologies that enrich and assist us in living our lives. The defining quality of these technologies is that rather than pulling us away from the core human experience, I argued that they actually help make us more human.
Today I’d like to add to this list. After watching Chris Milk’s TED2015 talk – How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine – I believe that virtual reality technology could be a solution to getting us to care, specifically about the people living in realities so far removed from ours that they are hard to imagine.
Milk wondered if there was a way that he could “use modern and developing technologies to tell stories in different ways and tell different kinds of stories that maybe [we] couldn’t tell using the traditional tools of filmmaking that we’ve been using for 100 years?” As he explains, “What I was trying to do was to build the ultimate empathy machine.“
One such experiment in empathy machines is the interactive short film entitled Wilderness Downtown, a project with Arcade Fire that has an avatar running down a street, that you quickly realize is the one you grew up on. I actually used this little bit of virtual reality a few years back when he made it, and myself was delighted by the results. You can try this one using the link above.
His next attempt was an art installation – The Treachery of Sanctuary. In this piece, people were given the power to transform themselves into birds and bring them into flight using triptych technology.
Perhaps most impressing is the film Clouds over Sidra. In this United Nations sponsored work, he uses virtual reality to create empathy for those living in a refugee camp in Jordan – placing them in three dimensional spaces while a 12-year-old refugee named Sidra tells the story of her life. As Milk explains
…when you’re sitting there in her room, watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her. When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathize with her in a deeper way.
Milk’s team is now making more of these films – currently shooting one in Liberia. And these films are now being shown to the people at the United Nations who can change the lives of those inside these virtual reality worlds.
The power of this medium to enhance human empathy is incredible. I’ve spoken before about multimedia literacy and about the problem with our society’s primacy of text over other modes of communication. Milk’s work is demonstrative of the power of other mediums beyond text to communicate things such as empathy – something that can be communicated in a written story, but may be communicated better in a virtual reality world.
As Mlik explains,
It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other.And that’s how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.
So, it’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected.And ultimately, we become more human.
I would love to view one of his virtual reality films. Wouldn’t you?