The Power of VR as an ‘Empathy Machine’ and Office Holodeck

Virtual reality has a long history in science fiction. From the Lawnmower Man to the Matrix, the idea of VR has inspired artists and gamers alike. But it’s only very recently that the technology has moved out of the lab and into people’s homes.

Since the 2012 Oculus Kickstarter, VR has become a driving passion for technophiles and developers around the world. In 2016, the first consumer devices became mainstream, and now the only questions seem to be how quickly it will improve, who will adopt it, and what applications will prove the most revolutionary?

Barry Pousman is one of the field’s leading innovators and a big believer in VR’s transformative potential. Pousman began working in the VR field as a founding member of the United Nations’ VR initiative and has served as an advisor to some of the industry’s heavyweights, including Oculus, HTC Vive, and IDEO Labs.

Pousman co-directed, co-produced, and shot the now-famous VR film Clouds Over Sidra, and his work has been screened at the World Economic Forum, the UN General Assembly, and the Sundance Film festival. In fact, his company, Variable Labs, is building an immersive VR learning platform for businesses with a special focus on corporate training.

I recently caught up with Pousman to get his take on VR’s recent past and its exciting future. In his corporate office in Oakland, California, we discussed the power of VR as an “empathy machine,” its dramatic impact on donations to aid Syrian refugees, and how his home office is already pretty close to Star Trek’s Holodeck.

I know that empathy is a big focus for Variable Labs. Could you say more about how you see immersive experiences helping people to become more empathic? What is the connection between VR and empathy?

What attracted me to the medium of VR in the first place is how incredible VR experiences can be and how much remains unknown within the field.

Although all artistic mediums can invoke empathy VR is unlike traditional mediums (writing, theater, film). VR’s sheer form-factor and the isolating experience it engenders, inspires focus like no other medium before it. And when we marry that with the user experience of seeing and hearing the world from another human’s perspective, you get what Chris Milk calls “the empathy machine.”

At Variable Labs, our end-goal is not to foster more empathy in the world, but instead to create measurable and positive behavior change for our audiences using commercial technology. We are engaging in efficacy research for our learning platform to see if and how users internalize and implement the lessons in their own lives.

You co-directed, co-produced and shot the United Nations VR documentary, Clouds Over Sidra. For those who are unfamiliar, could you say something about the film. What was it like making the film? What was the advantage of using VR? And what was the overall impact for the UN?

The 360 film Clouds Over Sidra allows audiences to spend a day in a refugee camp and is seen through the lens of a young Syrian girl. It was first filmed as an experiment with the United Nations and the VR company, Within, but has since become a model for live-action 360 documentary and documentary journalism.

For me personally, the film was difficult to shoot because of the challenging environment at the camp. Not that it was particularly violent or unclean, but rather that the refugees there were so similar to my own friends and family at home. They were young professionals, doctors, and middle-class children, living as refugees with almost no opportunities to shape their own futures.

Clouds Over Sidra is now being used by UNICEF street fundraisers and reporting a 100% increase in donations in cities across the world.”

Throughout my career of making impact media, I’ve understood how important it is to get these types of stories out and into the hands of people that can really make a difference. And in measuring the actions taken by the audience of this film, it’s clear that it has had a dramatic effect on people.

When Clouds Over Sidra was screened at the last minute during a Syrian Refugee donor conference, they were able to raise $3.8 billion, far surpassing the expected $2.3 billion for the 24-hour event. In fact, the film is now being used by UNICEF street fundraisers and reporting a 100% increase in donations in cities across the world.

We’ve seen a kind of rise and fall of VR over the last forty years or so. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of excitement about VR linked to books like Neuromancer (1984), and movies like Brainstorm (1983), the Lawnmower Man (1992), and of course, the Matrix trilogy (1999). In your view, has VR now finally come of age?

Has VR come of age? Well-funded organizations such as NASA and the DoD have been using virtual reality for simulated learning since the late 70s. And similar to the computing industry—which began in the DoD and then moved into consumer and personal computing—VR hardware is now finally hitting the consumer market.

This means that instead of spending millions of dollars on VR hardware, anyone can purchase something very similar for only a few hundred dollars.

Steven Spielberg’s upcoming film, Ready Player One will raise eyebrows and grow interest and appetite for personal immersive tech. And as these themes continue to grow in mainstream media, consumers and publishers will become increasingly inspired to explore new VR formats and entirely new use-cases.

Personally, I’m excited about further exploring the idea of convergent media, bridging the gap between linear storytelling and audience agency. For example, Pete Middleton’s, Notes on Blindness, pushes the envelope in this way by involving the audience in the action. And the Gabo Arora’s upcoming room-scale piece, The Last Goodbye, is another example that uses “activity required” storytelling.

But in my view, VR won’t truly come of age until we can integrate artificial intelligence. Then the virtual worlds and characters will be able to respond dynamically to audience input and we can deliver more seamless human-computer interactions.

There are now a plethora of VR platforms for the mass market: Oculus, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and more. With the costs of the technology declining and computing capacity accelerating, where do you see VR having the most impact over the next 10-15 years?

For impact from VR, the clear and away winner will be education.

The research from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the MIT Media Lab, USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, and many other top-tier institutions has shown the efficacy of VR for learning and development with excellent results. In fact, a new study from researchers in China showed incredible improvement for students using VR when learning both theoretical concepts and practical skills at the high school level.

“Immersive education will permeate all sectors from medicine to transportation to agriculture.”

And immersive education (VR, AR and MR) will permeate all sectors from medicine to transportation to agriculture. E-commerce is going to see a huge shift as well. Amazon and Google will no doubt be creating VR shopping experiences very soon if they haven’t started already. In addition to this, autonomous cars are a perfect fit for VR and AR. Self-driving cars will create an entirely new living room for families with both individual and group VR and AR experiences for learning and entertainment.

VR breaks the square frame of traditional narratives. What does VR mean to art and storytelling?

Seeing well-made and well thought out VR is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have.

I look at the incredible work of Oculus Story Studio, and it’s obvious they’ve tapped into a whole new way of looking at story development for VR. And Within continues to break new boundaries in art and storytelling by adding new technologies while maintaining nuanced storylines, most recently through voice input in their latest work, Life of Us.

One of the best places to discover this sort of content is through Kaleidoscope, a traveling VR festival and collective of VR and AR artists, animators, filmmakers, and engineers.

There looks to be a pretty wide array of applications for VR including military training, education, gaming, advertising, entertainment, etc. What kind of projects are you currently working on?

We are excited about the enterprise training space. Imagine on your first day of work you get handed a nice VR headset instead of a stack of books and papers.

We used to think of the platform we’re building as the “Netflix of Learning” but we’ve now started exploring a Virtual Campus model. So imagine on that first day of work, you can (virtually) sit down with your new CEO in their office, meet other employees, speak with your HR manager, and fill out your new-hire forms from inside the headset using the controller.

For now, VR is limited to headsets or head-mounted displays (HMD). What new interfacing systems could we see in the future? When will we get the Star Trek holodeck?

There will be two form factors of VR/AR as we move forward, glasses for mobile use and rooms for higher fidelity experiences. I just installed an HTC Vive in my home office, and it feels pretty close to the Holodeck already! The empty room turns into an art gallery, a paintball field, a deep-sea dive, and a public speaking simulator. And what we get to take out of it is an expanded viewpoint, a raised consciousness, memories and the occasional screenshot. This is just the beginning, and it’s going to change how we learn and play in profound ways.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Daniel Araya
Daniel Araya
Daniel Araya is a researcher and advisor to government with a special interest in technological innovation, public policy, and education. He is a Sharing Cities Policy Fellow with Shareable and a regular contributor to various media outlets including Futurism, The Brookings Institution, and Medium. He is a film producer and writer and holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His newest books include: Augmented Intelligence (2017), Evolution of the Liberal Arts in the Global Age (with Peter Marber) (2017), and Smart Cities as Democratic Ecologies (2015). 
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