Filmmakers, producers and academics made up a panel talk at ITP this Friday called "VR For Good," and presented an interesting glimpse into different spaces within the world of socially-minded VR storytelling.
I remain skeptical that VR can really be an empathy machine, like Chris Milk imagines, when the experiences only last about 5 minutes. Films need some amount of time to engross the viewer, and I think longer immersions will really benefit the experiences designed to instill empathy in viewers.
To this end, I really appreciated how Hyphen-Lab's Ashley Baccus-Clark and Carmen Aguilar y Wedge approached the entire experience leading up to the moment you put on the headset for their project Neurospeculative AfroFeminism. With waiting lines as long as they are for VR experiences at film festivals, it makes opportunistic sense to create complimentary physical spaces and objects that visitors can interact with during the lead-up time.
Letting users touch physical representations of the beauty products and objects from their VR experience's imagined future strengthens the overall experience and plays up their themes of co-opting materialism, objectivism and self-care for women of color.
It was also really interesting to hear about the work of Christopher Szymczak, UNICEF's Innovation VR Lead, and wonder at the possibilities for truly walking in another's shoes in places that Westerners will likely never otherwise visit. Being led through a Jordanian refugee camp by a 12 year old girl in Clouds Over Sidra is undeniably impactful. And concretely, director Gabor Arora said that donations to UNICEF at screenings of the film improve to 1 in 6 chance of donations from viewers (twice their average of 1 in 12 via traditional fundraising attempts like sidewalk canvassing).
I really look forward to making work like this next year in the class Alt Docs: Inventing New Formats for Non-Fiction Storytelling, which will allow me to incorporate 360 video and spatial audio into Unity. For me, having very little background with gaming, the appeal is much more natural to make work that reflects the real world vs some low-poly cgi environment, and I hope that I can approach the levels of empathy creation that Chris Milk envisions are capable.