VR/AR and 360 video are in their early commercial stages. One of the first obvious applications is to put the viewer in the shoes of another person or animal. This will naturally allow the user to develop a greater empathy for the experience shown, however, in its infancy, VR/AR is a spectacle. Similar to the explosion of consumer content on the
Smartphone or the commercial release of television sets, applications and content, for the
most part, revolve around entertainment and gimmick. For the medium to generate impactful sympathy in its users, to the point where a change in characteristics and behaviour take place, the content has to be readily available on a day to day basis. This is clear in daily TV news, charity advertising and radio broadcasting.
Experiencing 360 footage taken by a homeless person or a refugee is impactful and begins a cycle whereby the user can relate to the everyday surroundings of that person. In order for change to take place, this cycle needs to come around to help or aid the people in need. At the moment, it’s clear that 360 footage is giving an insight into these surroundings, but isn’t necessarily generating any more impact from the empathy experienced than was done so before with sound, photography, film and live information updates.
This is not a completely pessimistic outlook. There is a definite possibility that Virtual Reality will trigger sympathetic gestures and actions, or perhaps alter behaviours in the near future.
There’s no doubt that it will be similar to previous broadcasting technologies, and potentially more significant in achieving sympathetic reactions. Examples so far are from living in Gaza, to life in the Ebola crisis or Chris Milk’s Clouds over Sidra. All of these are intense struggles for those involved and the 360 content certainly gives an insight into the everyday life of the subject, however I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable by my lack of ability to do anything other than view these terrible and tragic scenarios. Then again, maybe expressing that feeling is the impact that it has. At what point does voyeurism in this capacity become too life-like? And after experiencing such a life-like tragedy at what point is it wrong not to act to help those involved or those in similar situations?
There is an element of sympathetic thought whilst engaging in these experiences, but at the same time, like the consumers of photography and film, it is much farther from sympathetic interaction than is needed to make a difference in these crises. New users are understandably hung up in the spectacle of Virtual Reality or 360 videos but to push this forward, the documentary content needs to play to a continuation of media and an ability to interact with the people concerned. This is for me the main problem with television, but also the beauty of Twitter and other interactive platforms. I hope that 360 video can find a balance between voyeurism and positive interaction / charitable giving if it continues to focus on such mammoth crises of our time. I also wonder whether 360 broadcasting will become a centrepiece for news broadcasting. There are a number of ethical questions that arise if this was to be. In the heat of the moment, the camera can’t be turned away, only turned off!