CULTURE & ARTS
03/03/2016 11:22 am ET

Can Virtual Reality Make Us Better People?

The godmother of VR has big plans to change the world.
Still from "Kiya"

You're sitting on the couch, playing a video game. Press the button on your console and you're shooting a gun. Keep on pulling the trigger and anonymous digital bodies explode and vanish on the screen before you. You're extinguishing so many you can barely keep count.

Video games, gory films, graphic images on the Internet -- much of the violent content we consume, whether for entertainment or information, is associated with effects of dehumanization, an unfeeling response in the wake of cruelty. Reading, perhaps, is one exception. Virtual reality may be another.

Nonny de la Peña is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality journalism. For years, she has used the technology to craft stories that bring the invisible into view. While that might sound like a tired platitude, de la Peña means the words quite literally. She doesn't just want you to see the dark realities that are too often hidden from view, she'll make you stand in a room with them. 

Still from "Kiya"

I have never been in a room with someone holding a gun. For a few minutes, however, during de la Peña's VR film "Kiya," I felt a small fraction of the panic you might expect -- the shortness of breath, the stomach drop, the waves of dizziness. While my body was in de la Peña's Los Angeles studio, I was inside a digital replication of murdered mother Zakiya Lawson's home.

"Kiya" is a computer-generated reconstruction of true events, based on 911 calls Lawson's sisters made just minutes before the mother of seven was shot. I knew her 2013 story was a story of domestic assault. I knew Kiya's former boyfriend had a gun, which he used to kill her and himself. And I knew the piece was made in her memory. But when I was standing less than a virtual foot away from her shooter, powerless to help or leave or even cover my eyes, I didn't feel like I had a technological device strapped to my head. I felt totally naked, vulnerable and scared. 

"You feel it in your whole body," de la Peña told me after the viewing, though I already knew. Minutes before I had been examining the family photos and scribbled notes on Lawson's refrigerator, all digitally reproduced to exactly mimic her real home, until one of de la Peña's staff removed my helmet and offered me a glass of water. The buzzing studio halted for a moment to give me a look of concern, like I had just been through something. 

In the United States, three women a day are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. "We've all heard that statistic plenty of times," de la Peña said, alluding to the feeble potential of even the most appalling facts and figures. Would people pay more attention if the number was four women? Five? Does it literally take putting people in the room with a gun to make them care? According to de la Peña, it may help. 

"Kiya," which de la Peña described as "strict journalism," visually resembles a video game, but the audio is all real, culled from the recorded 911 calls. De la Peña interviewed the sisters and, using their testimony and police reports, reconstructed the entire scene. As the participant, by walking around in real life you are moving freely through Lawson's home, able to notice the details on the walls or cower in the corner. 

Still from "Kiya"

The second piece de la Peña brought to Sundance in 2016, along with "Kiya," is called "Across the Line." In this virtual experience, the viewer walks past a picket line of verbally abusive protesters outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic. The voices you hear, calling you a wicked jezebel feminist, telling you to go to hell, are all authentic recordings from Planned Parenthoods across the country. 

While "Kiya" is based entirely on the factual events of a single occurrence, "Across the Line" is more of a truthful collage, combining snippets of sound from distinct situations to evoke a single emotional encounter. "With 'Across the Line,' I was thinking: what does a montage look like in VR?" de la Peña explained. "How do we push filmmaking potential in this new medium?" The piece also combines 360 video with computer-generated material, blurring the line between fiction and reality. 

The goal, for de la Peña, more than informative explanation, is emotional impact. After pulling up to the clinic and being bombarded by angry individuals, a person experiencing "Across the Line" must physically walk up to each protester, many of whom are yelling phrases like, "You whore, you shouldn’t be sleeping with every guy at the club."

Like "Kiya," the characters in "Across the Line" are blocky and cartoonish, resembling figures in a video game more than live action people. The authentic audio coupled with the abstracted visuals creates a jarring sensory experience. The conflicting signs of reality and unreality arguably echo the experience of a jumbled memory, or perhaps a particular scarring one. Like a nightmare, despite the inconsistencies or surreal details, it feels real. 

Still from "Across the Line"

De la Peña, known as the "godmother of virtual reality," first brought VR to Sundance in 2012, with a piece titled "Hunger in Los Angeles." Her intern had been recording families and individuals waiting in line at a food bank in LA. One man had diabetes and, while in line, his blood sugar dropped so low he passed out and went into a coma. 

Before 2012 Sundance, "people thought I was nuts," de la Peña laughed. But after the piece showed, she knew she had tapped into something big. "Once I saw people’s reactions to that piece it became clear this was a path for telling important stories." 

Since 2012, de la Peña's pieces have taken participants to a street corner in Aleppo, Syria, when a rocket hits, to the Mexico-U.S. border while a patrol agent beats a Mexican immigrant, to the Florida neighborhood where neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman shot unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. 

"I think this is just starting," de la Peña said. Education, entertainment, journalism, games -- in the future, de la Peña predicts, VR will enhance all of them. Ands an example of how VR could enhance existing storytelling methods, she mentions the popular true crime podcast Serial. 

"What if I put you in the Best Buy parking lot?" de la Peña wondered. "You’d know where the phone booth was. You’d understand everything differently. Imagine you're in that space, but you can slow down time, freeze time, give people agency without necessarily altering the linear nature of the story." 

Still from "Across the Line"

 

It makes sense for journalists and concerned citizens to want more access and more information. But when de la Peña asked: "Why would you watch the Boston Marathon bombing on a little screen?" I couldn't help but feel uneasy.

Should our collective hunger to be closer to the action be satiated? Would experiencing traumatic events via VR make us understand the pain? Or would we be teetering dangerously close to voyeurism, taking false ownership of another's experience, thinking we know the feeling when in truth, reality far exceeds the imitation? 

Primarily, de la Peña has her eyes on the younger generation of digital natives, those who already feel comfortable navigating virtual spaces and creating digital identities, and in some cases, don't prioritize real world experiences over simulated ones. "We want them to be informed global citizens," she said. She doesn't want the viewing public just to know, she wants them to care.

Virtual reality has been dubbed an empathy machine, taking the old adage of walking a mile in someone else's shoes to a very literal extreme. "Are we going to be able to create the kind of change I’ve been dreaming about?" she said, eyes growing large. Clearly that's the goal, a goal that's looking more and more promising over time.

Still from "Kiya"

However, while understanding and awareness are the aims, attempting to evoke impassioned emotional reactions from your audience is risky. Just as strongly as the technology can conjure genuine fear, sympathy or concern, it can also brew hate. 

The Verge's Adi Robertson had such an experience. After viewing "Across the Line" at Sundance, she described her reaction as an all-encompassing hatred. "It's an inversion of what empathy VR is supposed to do for the world," she wrote, "a connection that aligns you with one person and makes another a monster. This may be what makes me suspicious of changing the world by provoking emotions: emotions are not inherently good, and they're not inherently helpful. Hate is one of the purest emotions of all."

While video games are often accused of desensitizing the youth, virtual reality faces a near opposite dilemma. Most VR users will care, they will care immensely, passionately, deliriously. But can this assembled emotion yield generative and revolutionary results?

In the words of de la Peña: "We'll see."

HuffPost

BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
Sundance 2016 Documentary Preview
CONVERSATIONS