Vir­tual re­al­ity’s sur­pris­ing im­pact on real lives.

Vir­tual re­al­ity is called “the em­pa­thy ma­chine” for good rea­son.

ELLE (Canada) - - Insider - By Christina Reynolds

en­gulfed. Pro­voked. Gut-wrenched. I didn’t as­so­ciate these feel­ings with vir­tual re­al­ity (VR) un­til I put on a head­set and tried it.

Nonny de la Peña, known as “the god­mother of vir­tual re­al­ity,” had just given a talk about what she calls im­mer­sive jour­nal­ism at the TEDWomen 2015 con­fer­ence in Monterey, Calif. I was in­trigued by her de­scrip­tion of how VR can take you “in­side the story” and lets you “re­mem­ber with your en­tire body and not just your mind.” She spoke pas­sion­ately and showed ex­am­ples of her work on the (non-3-D) screen be­hind her: Pro­ject Syria trans­ports you to a street where a young girl is singing when sud­denly a bomb goes off; Hunger in Los An­ge­les puts you in a long food-bank line when a di­a­betic man col­lapses from low blood sugar; One Dark Night takes you into the rainy night when Ge­orge Zim­mer­man shot Trayvon Martin so you can see for your­self how the events un­folded; and Use of Force lets you ob­serve the beat­ing death of Anas­ta­sio Her­nan­dez-Ro­jas by U.S. bor­der-pa­trol agents from be­hind a nearby fence and from a rooftop, where wit­nesses ac­tu­ally stood.

De la Peña ex­plained how she and her team at the Em­blem­atic Group have to “be very cau­tious” to en­sure that they build these pieces “with in­tegrity.” All are metic­u­lous recre­ations of ac­tual events, each trans­formed into VR us­ing ar­chi­tec­tural ren­der­ings, pho­to­graphs and au­dio from 911 calls and other record­ings.

I’d read de­tailed news ac­counts and watched doc­u­men­taries about these kinds of events, and I had been af­fected. So how much more in­tense could a VR ex­pe­ri­ence ac­tu­ally be? Right af­ter that TED ses­sion, I found out. I sat down in a swivel chair in the con­fer­ence space and put on a Sam­sung Gear Ocu­lus Rift head­set to watch Kiya, de la Peña’s latest 3-D piece. At first, I was aware of the am­bi­ent chat­ter of my sur­round­ings as peo­ple min­gled dur­ing the break. But I was soon trans­ported into a liv­ing room where a gun-wield­ing man was grab­bing and shak­ing a woman named Kiya. Two women—Kiya’s sis­ters—were try­ing to con­vince the man to let her go: They tried to talk him down, they called 911, they put up their hands to try to calm him. I was right there. I reached out with my own hands, and I swiv­elled around in the chair look­ing for some­thing in the house that might help. (My

only re­minder that I was still in a con­fer­ence cen­tre came when my leg briefly brushed past my bag on the ground. I reached down for it but could not see it in my new re­al­ity.) My pulse was rac­ing, and I felt clammy. I mum­bled “Stop” un­der my breath. The man pushed the sis­ters out­side the house, and I was trans­ported along with them to a new spot out­side. Like them, I didn’t want to leave. To­gether, we looked up and down the streets, anx­iously wait­ing for the po­lice car to ar­rive. Stuck out­side, we were help­less as we lis­tened to bits of the strug­gle con­tinue to un­fold in­side the house—the au­dio wasn’t very clear, but that added to the sense of con­fu­sion. Then there were dis­tinct gun­shots.

My stom­ach dropped. The po­lice rushed into the house—and then came out with the dev­as­tat­ing con­fir­ma­tion. But we al­ready knew. I took off the head­set and let out a deep breath. And then another. My eyes had welled with tears. I couldn’t im­me­di­ately get up—and I couldn’t be­lieve there were peo­ple nearby, obliv­i­ously pick­ing up wasabi-flavoured sea­weed strips from the snack sta­tion. Now I un­der­stood the “dual­ity of pres­ence” that de la Peña talks about. And what she means when she says VR al­lows you to “tap into these feel­ings of em­pa­thy.” Even more than a month later, the ex­pe­ri­ence is still with me; when I think about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence now— some­thing I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced per­son­ally— I in­ter­nal­ize it more than I had be­fore.

So­cial jus­tice is just one ex­am­ple of the po­ten­tial prac­ti­cal power of VR. The tech­nol­ogy is also be­gin­ning to be used for ther­a­peu­tic pur­poses. Re­cently, in one small study, re­searchers in Korea used it to treat 10 al­co­hol-de­pen­dent pa­tients: Af­ter a week-long detox, par­tic­i­pants cy­cled through three dif­fer­ent VR sce­nar­ios twice a week for five weeks. One of the sce­nar­ios placed them in a room where peo­ple were get­ting sick from drink­ing, and they ex­pe­ri­enced this al­ter­na­tive re­al­ity while con­sum­ing a vomit-tast­ing drink. Over­all, their crav­ings seemed to be re­duced.

Another ex­am­ple comes from Toron­to­based VR start-up PCP VR, where founder Erik Peter­son de­vel­oped a VR-based re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram for stroke pa­tients. (The pro­gram is now in the test­ing phase.) Do­ing ex­er­cises, like bi­cep curls, with a VR head­set has the po­ten­tial to reawaken “dead” limbs, says Peter­son. “Upon see­ing the cor­rect move­ment, sig­nals from the brain to the arm con­tinue to get sent down through the limb un­til it ‘reawak­ens’ and can move again,” he ex­plains.

“With VR, hav­ing ac­cess to the ex­pe­ri­en­tial part of the un­con­scious mind opens up a lot of door­ways for ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing the em­pa­thy stuff,” says Peter­son. “If you can trick the phys­i­ol­ogy of the brain to the point where you can make it be­lieve it’s mov­ing an arm when it’s not, then you’re also go­ing to be able to do a lot more in terms of mak­ing peo­ple un­der­stand what it’s like to, say, live in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa or be a rich Rus­sian oli­garch. And I think that hav­ing the jux­ta­po­si­tion of some­thing like be­ing a poor kid in Africa with be­ing the rich­est man in the world within min­utes will be a strong tool. You can’t not see the di­chotomy—it will be an un­prece­dented way to see the world.”

Still, Peter­son be­lieves that we’re just be­gin­ning to dis­cover the true power of VR; he calls the VR tech­nol­ogy that is on the mar­ket now “en­try level.” Much more pow­er­ful “high-end” VR tools and en­vi­ron­ments, ones that can gen­er­ate what in the in­dus­try is called “pres­ence” (like the abil­ity to vir­tu­ally walk through a refugee camp in Jor­dan and in­ter­act with peo­ple in real time rather than watch­ing a dig­i­tal recre­ation un­fold from a set point), are com­ing in the near fu­ture. “Stuff that used to be con­sid­ered science fic­tion is now on the hori­zon,” he says.

This all makes me ex­cited but a bit ner­vous too. There is a real power to VR, and it has po­ten­tial for such good. But it can also be used for things like vi­o­lent gam­ing—and you can imag­ine what else. Scenes from the 2014 Robin Wright film The Congress— where most of the pop­u­la­tion aban­dons the real crum­bling world for a strange to­tali­tar­ian, post-apoc­a­lyp­tic VR “uni­verse”—come to mind as well. Still, de­spite all this, de la Peña trusts in the truth that VR can re­veal. “Truth can be painful some­times,” she said in her TED Talk. “If you feel it with your whole body, it might be less easily for­got­ten and more deeply re­mem­bered.” n

TEDWomen 2015 con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants

watch the vir­tu­al­re­al­ity piece Kiya in

Monterey, Calif.

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