Last updated: August 19, 2019
Topic: ArtDesign
Sample donated:

It takes five minutes to travel to Hiroshima, time-travel to August of 1945, teleport around the deserted Japanese city, watch an overhead plane drop an atomic bomb, and then travel back to present day. All daring tourists survive the bombing, absolved of the dark, fiery destruction and exposure to ionized radiation upon relieving their heads from the considerable weight of a wonky set of plastic goggles. The magical powers of the virtual reality (VR) headset possess the ability take viewers everywhere without going anywhere, to every time at any time. Believers in the clunky headset deity tout VR’s capacity as an “empathy machine,” an intimate, immersive, and innovative medium capable of transmitting human experience and all its accompanying emotion and understanding to others, like survivors of the World War II Hiroshima bombing. Technologists commonly use virtual and augmented reality to transport users into similarly unnerving disaster zones, homeless encampments, date rape scenarios, or various additional sites of human suffering. In other words, empathy machine supporters have hardly ever been the actual “subject” of an empathy machine experience. Subjects have, however, been inside the empathy machine to examine the accuracy of their real experiences, recreated. Keiko Ogura, 72, tests the “Hiroshima in VR” experience in Syracuse University’s VR lab after sharing her testimony with an auditorium of SU students. When Ms. Ogura was 8 years old, she was exposed to the atomic bomb 2.4 km away from the hypocenter. Now, as a storyteller for Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation, she visits a CGI-version of her pre-war home city and seems, oddly, unruffled by being virtually bombed. “That’s the end? Do I go around and see?” Ms. Ogura wonders when she reaches the sullen, shadowy finale of the 360-video. Professor Dan Pacheco, SU’s chair in journalism innovation, helps Ms. Ogura remove the headset and responds to her question by asking if the simulation reminded her of Hiroshima. “Yes, but where were the people?” she replies. Everything she saw in the headset displayed on a computer monitor in the lab, which revealed to the audience of eager students in line to try the experience for themselves that there were, in fact, no people populating the city with Ms. Ogura. It’s as if she longed to see others who fully understand the ruin of nuclear destruction as she does, not a deserted model of a home she once knew. Here we have Ms. Ogura, a living subject of an empathy machine experience, and even she struggles to emotionally connect –– empathize, if you will –– with a fabricated version of her own reality. As VR champions navigate a heavy blend of ambition, hype and hope, with Goldman Sachs estimating that by 2025 it will produce $80 billion in revenue, these filmmakers struggle to stray from the “empathy” buzzword to sell their experiences. VR is a medium with immense and immersive artistic possibilities, but the majority of films collecting attention are journalistic clips that take headset wearers into humanitarian crises, like Project Syria and Clouds Over Sidra, both of which demonstrate the difficulties of Syrian refugees. In 2015 Chris Milk, CEO of Within, the virtual reality technology company commissioned by the UN to create Clouds Over Sidra, used a 10-minute-long TED Talk to promise the capacity of VR as an “empathy machine.” The term likely originated with Roger Ebert, who described traditional film as “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” In his presentation, Milk claims VR will resolve the empathy deficit ingrained by screen culture and gaps in privilege. Then, in 2016, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey even went so far as to extol the virtues of a VR future in which poor people could have everything wealthy people posses inside VR. “Virtual reality can make it so anyone, anywhere can have these experiences,” Luckey told Wired. The rhetoric of the empathy machine begs us to endorse a type of technology without questioning the its spectrum of uses. Empathy, as if some coveted craze, is being manipulated to sell packaged access to feelings. To most, VR may seem like an innocent gamer’s utopia, but few have stopped to consider the possible cruelty of what emotion-targeted VR demands of users. Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger, researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, in Germany, published a series of recommendations on the mainstream applications of VR in 2016. Their valuation of the medium’s psychological force is both wary and foreboding. “The power of V.R. to induce particular kinds of emotions could be used deliberately to cause suffering,” they write. “Conceivably, the suffering could be so extreme as to be considered torture.” Using VR for torture may seem dubious, but “any device set on provoking a distinct emotion could easily be programmed to target another,” said Dr. Mark Povinelli, an engineering ethics professor at Syracuse University. Povinelli describes all technology as holding potential to be applied to its maximum good and maximum bad purposes. In the case of VR, empathy could be exploited for either objective. Empathy explains how we’re able to understand that other people have minds like our own. This notion, from social psychology, also has found backing from neuroscience, with the discovery of mirror neurons, which fire both when we perform actions and when we see actions performed by someone else. Something happens inside us when watching others and inferring their feelings. Although empathy is often linked to positive emotions and behaviors, we can also use empathy to more effectively cause pain, like an adept bully. The VR industry is operating with this obscure, and superficial definition of empathy, and it’s approving of truisms like “standing in another person’s shoes,” as VR producer Elizabeth Scott puts it. It’s also a definition that makes sense to a social platform like Facebook, which charters connections and transparency and would prefer it if these characteristics eventually lead to a “good” outcome. Evidential backlash against the “VR as the ultimate empathy machine” idea came most recently when Mark Zuckerberg used Facebook’s virtual reality platform, Facebook Spaces, to transport his curly-haired floating cartoon avatar to hurricane-wrecked Puerto Rico. The visit, aired on Facebook live, was met with swift accusations of tone-deafness to a condition the billion-dollar Silicon Valley mogul will never know. “Viewers need substantial background to contextualize what they’re seeing, otherwise immersive video spotlighting catastrophe risk becoming disaster porn,” says Robert Yang, an VR game developer and outspoken critic of VR’s claim to empathy. Zuckerberg used the live audience to discuss what Facebook is doing to aid relief — including donating $1.5 million and sharing user data with the Red Cross. It’s certainly heartwarming that the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are interested in promoting empathy for people and areas of plight, but the idea that passing up to 15 minutes in virtual reality goggles can manipulate a viewer’s sympathies is an utter delusion. Seeing through the empathy smoke and feeling mirrors undermines VR’s plethora of practical uses, none of which have to do with emotional connection. Amber Bartosh, an assistant architecture professor at SU, operates a simpler VR lab across campus from Dan Pacheco’s journalism-centric one. “It’s revolutionary for understanding spatial design,” she says. Aside from architecture and storytelling, students at SU use VR technology for neat things like enhancing graphic design, gaming interface, and medicine education, proving the technology itself is not the issue; it’s how VR as an entertainment vehicle is being advertised outside the classroom for mass audiences. Marketing VR as an “empathy machine” is a cynical tactic designed to exploit other peoples’ pain and struggles, an attempt to reimagine and idealize their importance for selling VR products – a desperate attempt position VR as receptive, applicable and vital, despite all evidence to the contrary. VR faces two major obstacles (neither of which pertain to the awkward appearance of hefty headsets): First, the constant sexual harassment allegations and assault scandals drawing attention to women in technology. Elizabeth Scott, who made the “other person’s shoes” analogy, notably left her job at UploadVR after filling a gender discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the start-up’s founders. Second, the imminent need to find a consumer demographic outside of gamers with lavish desktop devices. Empathy is a deus ex machina that all too conveniently resolves both problems shadowing an industry right off the cusp of relevance. Demonstrating that VR can be an instrument for deeper recognition of the global human condition (and not just a fancy entertainment apparatus for games and porn) isn’t just good PR — it’s a hike in the number of potential users for the technology, and a relief for large companies like Facebook and Google that have made substantial investments in VR development. According to an IDC August 2017 report, total spending on AR/VR products and services is forecasted to explode at an annualized rate of 113 percent to reach $215 billion in 2021. That’s up from $11 billion this year. Between camera equipment, CGI-development, and moderate production costs, VR isn’t a modest art form. Henry Stuart, CEO of VR production studio Visualise, said “projects can start from £15,000 about $20,000 and go up to the hundreds of thousands.” Google commissioned Visualise to create a VR documentary that explored gentrification in the Favelas leading up to the summer Olympics in Rio; surely an interesting topic, but an “empathetic experience” as the company marketed the film? That’s a stretch. Some VR journalism proponents note VR might not necessarily act as an empathy machine, but the immersive technology could still be a means of clueing people in on realities they know little-to-nothing about. Dan Pacheco believes, “VR experiences can take people through stories and places they may never get to live or visit otherwise. If you see, maybe you understand, then you think about beginning to empathize.” His VR journalism course at SU produces high-quality content. Much like the Olympics documentary, Pacheco’s students design high-quality experiences which highlight unique places, people, and events just as any piece of intriguing journalism might. Pacheco didn’t appear surprised by Ms. Ogura’s reaction to “Hiroshima in VR,” but as he untangled the thick headset cords to prepare for the next tourist’s trip, he says “the answers aren’t the same for everyone.” The empathy umbrella isn’t as inclusive as its made out to be, and empathetic connections simply cannot be packaged for retail. The notion of revealing a commercial empathy machine from behind red curtains is absurd. Imagine a future where we’re all sitting, Black Mirror-style, drooling, hooked up to hideous VR headsets, and experiencing all of our emotions through a 360-degree screen to gain the empathy that we’ve supposedly lost. It’s possible we’ll further the two-way bridge of empathetic connection as we recoil into our devices; regardless, VR isn’t the end-all answer to making people feel something, feel anything. No matter how advanced virtual reality gets, it can’t make anyone care against their will. It’s still all just pretend.