On Empathy and Connectedness

The Machine to be Another at Twist360.

The word “empathy” is probably one you’ve heard bandied about a lot if you’ve read up much on this whole virtual reality thing.  It’s a hot topic for panels, a hot topic for storytellers trying to figure out how story translates into this space, a hot topic for women working in this space, who keep getting told that women can SUCCEED in VR way more than in other areas of tech, you guys.  Because empathy! Which having a vagina makes you an expert at. Or something.

Seriously though, I am deeply interested in empathy as it connects to driving social change. Immersive journalist Nonny de la Pena, whose “Hunger in Los Angeles” cracked open the Pandora’s Box of this most recent VR Gold Rush when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival way back in 2012, was exploring empathy and  connection when she made that project, which recreated a factual event of a man collapsing in diabetic seizures from hunger while waiting in a food bank line.

The intent of this and other later VR “witness” experiments is to put the user into the perspective of a person witnessing some event unfold, generally in the form of a recreated experience, and with varying degrees of detail and quality in the animation or 360 video the user is immersed in.  Sundance’s New Frontiers section in January of this year was packed with similar VR experiments, each of them representing a small but important baby step towards storytellers and devs collectively figuring out just what we can (and should) do with this virtual reality thing .

The question I’m most interested in pondering is this:  What are the potentialities within this emerging deeply immersive and interactive media to shape and evolve us as human beings, individually and as we are connected to each other? These explorations of perspective are a toe dipped into the waters that are vast and deep; ultimately I believe this technology we are in the early stages of exploring and pioneering will transform the way humanity interconnects, and that transformation has the potential to have a profound impact on what we know as our world.  For now, the ability of the tech to generate what I would consider to be authentic “empathy” for others by giving an experience authentic enough to suspend the brain’s disbelief and fool it into thinking a virtual experience is “real” is limited, but evolving almost daily.

But does the ability to witness an event happening or even to be in the perspective of a person that it’s happening to virtually, translate into genuine understandings and increased empathy that can impact change in the real world beyond the headset?  What impact has experiencing “Hunger in Los Angeles” or any other POV VR experience actually had impacting whether a given individual user who sees it would respond differently when faced with a similar real-life situation than they otherwise would? I’ve experienced “Hunger in Los Angeles” and I can’t honestly say that it had anywhere close to impacting my own empathy for what it’s like to have to stand in a food bank line to get food for your family than having the actual experience myself of having to use a food bank when I’ve been strapped for cash as a frequently starving artist and entrepreneur..

Moreover, when faced with real-life traumatic situations happening right in front of them, how often do people actually jump in to help? My Facebook feed is filled with stories of friends who were in some dire or dangerous situation or other, with passersby or police doing nothing to help them.  Maybe my friends are just more prone than average to dangerous situations, or maybe there are other reasons that passersby would ignore a stranger in need.  On the other hand, when those same friends put out calls for help to their friend community through Facebook – an unexpected illness or injury or death, a loss of a job, a house fire destroying all they own – their community of people who actually knows them tends to come to bat and support them through it.  Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds community, and maybe it’s part of what builds empathy, too.

Part of the problem with empathy is that, as numerous studies over the decades have shown,  we humans are wired to “care” more about those to whom we have a strong emotional attachment.  How do we expand our ability to care, to empathize, beyond what seem to be normal human parameters? So I was excited to try out The Machine to Be Another recently, when Sandy Cioffi and Gretchen Burger brought this intriguing academic experiment to Seattle as a part of the queer-themed Twist360.  My partner Nathaniel and I signed up to experience it together, not entirely sure what to expect.

The Machine isn’t really virtual reality, per se. It uses the technology of virtual reality to transpose your experience with the experience of another person sitting across from you. When you’re both in the headsets, you look down at your “body” and see the body of the other person.  Trained “actors” help guide the experience, augmenting it with synchronized touch, handing both people like objects to touch and explore, putting mirrors in front of both so you see the other person as if it’s you.

Before we had our turn, we watched several couples go through the experience, and I was quite moved watching the emotional responses that some of the people had. Of the couples we watched, I observed that the female partners were the most openly emotionally reactive about the shared experience.  As an audience member, I found myself feeling emotionally drawn to the perceived intimacy of the experience. It was moving, watching these couples interact with each other within a space of wonder. I couldn’t wait to try it with Nathaniel.

And then we did … and it was interesting, to see his body through my eyes, and then to see myself standing across from myself. But my brain was hyperactively hyper-analyzing the experience, pondering the mechanics of how it all worked even as my brain tried to convince itself of what it was seeing. The actors who provided the external sensory stimulation were first-rate and their timing was impeccable. I was just always too aware of it being an experiment, once I was in it, to feel any real profoundly different connection to my partner than I otherwise feel.  It was interesting, but not what I would call an emotional experience for me at all.

For me, I think the greater potentiality of The Machine to be Another lies in putting two people who are NOT already emotionally connected to each other, within this experience.  Put a racist in a Black man’s body. Put a Jew and a Palestinian, an old person and a teenager, a fat person and a skinny person, a pregnant woman and a man who identifies as pro-life, into the Machine, maybe that’s a start. Maybe, if we use the Machine as a starting point and not an ending one, a question and not an answer,  we’ll start to unravel the secret of empathy and connectedness and what they can mean in this space.