The dream of the 80s might finally be coming true. Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming, well, a reality. Recently I’ve had a chance to play with some VR tech (but nowhere near as much as many other people have) and I’ve been contemplating how VR could be used in campaigns.
The pitfalls of early adoption
I’m going to start with the obvious drawback. The tech just isn’t common yet. There’s cheap (and not so great) solutions like Google Cardboard but most of the commercial devices are going to run you $1,000+ and that’s without even considering the computer you need to run it. In the next 5-10 years I imagine you’ll see it becoming more and more common but for the mean time this will just be for the early adopters.
Luckily the tech used to create VR experiences isn’t too expensive and pseudo-VR experiences (like YouTube’s 360° videos) exist. Using a 360° or software to stitch together traditional video is becoming more and more affordable and SDKs mean that programming VR isn’t outside the real of possibility for many who already have experience. Hopefully this means that experiments into VR can already be worked into existing projects.
Experience vs narrative
Tell a story. That’s as close to dogma as there is in the non-profit world. The narrative is one of the key tools of campaigning but it’s one that doesn’t work in VR. Or at least it doesn’t work in the way we normally think of. VR is about showing and not telling. That may be a hallmark of any good writing but with VR it is taken to the extreme.
In an excellent Medium post Mike Woods, takes on the role of VR in story telling.
And this brings us to the elephant in the room with the current notion of VR Storytelling. Storytelling is a RETROSPECTIVE thing. It always has been. People didn’t sit around the campfire telling stories in the timeframes that they actually occurred. And i’m not aware of realtime books. Linear narrative mechanisms have evolved to break down the constraints of time and emotive viewpoint.
He goes on to argue:
Fictional or genre based narrative stories aren’t always afforded the luxury of a voiceover. Many of my VR projects have started earnestly as VR ‘stories’, but ultimately descended into something akin to voyeuristic explorations, full of audio or action cues designed to attract your attention to one part of the world, so that we can deliver something we feel is key. This is problematic to say the least. And always brings up the most frustrating of questions. What’s the point of doing this in VR? Wouldn’t this be better served in 16:9?
Max Planck director of Oculus Story Studio seems to agree.
VR is by its very nature real time and absent of what we would traditionally think of as a director. There’s no effective way to control the viewer’s gaze so we can’t control the story. That means that the traditional story structures fall down.
That means that VR is experiential. While you can tell a story, in the broad sense, you can’t tell a narrative (or at least we haven’t figured it out yet). That may sound like a roadblock but I don’t think it is. It just means that VR is a tool that’s different from what we’re used to and we need to find the right applications for it. If you play to VR’s strengths then that means putting the viewer in the scenario. This would work best when you want to elicit a certain emotional response. Situations where words, or even traditional video, may not convey the degree of feeling that you want.
Empathy is the ability understand how other people feel and this is no doubt amplified when you experience what they experience.
A leap of faith
If VR is experiential rather than narrative then what are some examples of how this can be done? I’ve gathered a small list of examples where people are on the right track:
- The Guardian has an app called 6x9 that simulates the “psychological damage of extreme isolation” in a solitary confinement prison cell.
- Growing Up Girl uses a 360° video to put you in the feet of Monica, a 10-year-old girl living in Kenya, and show you her daily routine, which includes walking miles from her village into town to find light for her homework.
- In the medical field VR is being used to help people deal with phobias by slowly exposing people to the triggers of that fear. Similar experiments are happening around PTSD as well.
- Smart News Agency (from Syria) released a 360° video showing the devastation caused by the civil war. RYOT did something similar, with the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake.
All of these examples show one of the biggest strengths of VR: removing the problem from the realm of the abstract. It’s one thing to intellectually know how these problems affect people but it’s an entirely other experience to be placed, even virtually, in that situation and see it for yourself.
While thinking about this article I’ve had a number of other applications pop in my head:
- We’ve all seen Saving Private Ryan. The D-Day scene at the beginning of the movie was so intense that veterans who were at Normandy had to leave the theatre. While I don’t consider triggering veterans PTSD to be a good thing I can imagine a similar VR experience used as a learning tool. It’s one thing to hear about the horrors of war and understand it conceptually but actually being placed in that situation would be eye-opening for many. (Of course it’s a fine line to walk between a VR experience and say a Battlefield game.)
- Climate change is a problem of degrees; not just in temperature but in effects. The impacts are often as abstract as they can get. So sea-levels rise, what does that mean to me. I’ve seen people produce maps that show where the new coastlines will be. Imagine being able to (virtually) walk through your town and see the places you love and go to every day underwater. With VR we might be able to take something ephemeral and make it solid.
- Clearcutting forests in the tropics is a huge environmental problem. The impacts of walking through a clearcut forest and seeing the stark change to the landscape and the impacted ecosystem could have a huge emotional effect on the viewer. Pictures and videos are good but being able to wander through the forests (or lack thereof) yourself would be more impactful. It is possible to do this in the real-world with small groups but now everyone can have that experience.
- Courtrooms are, understandably, scary places for anyone who isn’t a lawyer or a judge. A big part of this is that people don’t know what to expect or how courts operate. Sure they’ve seen Law and Order and Judge Judy but that doesn’t prepare you to be standing there in real-life. VR could, much like with phobias, be used to acclimate people to the experience beforehand so they aren’t so nervous walking in.
There’s a big future out there for VR and the non-profit world will be able to capitalize on it with a little thought and effort.