How One Journalist Uses Virtual Reality to Inspire Empathy

By Michael Venables, Contributor

Imagine the following: Diabetic and hungry, you collapse in a food line when your blood sugar level drops too low. Eventually, you go into a coma, but before the ambulance team arrives to rescue you, you take in street noises and crowds of people also waiting in line for food in a semi-conscious state.

This event actually occurred at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles. It was also reenacted, or rather, graphically re-experienced, in “Hunger In Los Angeles“—the world’s first virtual reality (VR) documentary released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

Created by Nonny de la Peña, a journalist who is an early adopter of VR as a reporting tool, the impetus behind the film was to inspire empathy by transporting viewers into someone else’s shoes.

Using audio clips from the church in the VR experience, de la Peña simulated the real-life event of the man who went into a coma while waiting for his meal. The combination of viscerally affective audio and virtual models can put viewers in the center of the traumatic event and, de la Peña hopes, inspired a deeper level of understanding.

For the pioneer VR documentary filmmaker, virtual reality technology taps into a new form of immersive journalism, allowing for a first-person “I am there” experiential view of the storyline.

“What’s interesting with virtual reality is, actually, we can [give people] the sensation of actually being on the scene,” de la Peña said. “It’s not that they forget where their body is. But they get something that I call a ‘duality of presence,’ which allows the sensation of being in two places at once.”

Since the release of “Hunger in Los Angeles,” de la Peña has looked to virtual reality as more than a tool to generate new digital experiences. She has used the technology to created a heightened level of transparency between viewer and subject, raising awareness and connecting individuals to important, yet sensitive, issues.

“I give people, as much as I [can], all the critical-thinking tools that I might have utilized to create that piece,” de la Peña explained. “That transparency, where I work, I hope, then reflects on how accurate the piece might be.”

From Empathy to Action

The question de la Peña still seeks to answer is, by making people invest in stories, do they become more informed citizens who are willing to take action and make change? In the last several years, she has tackled ambitious projects to find out.

De la Peña’s collaborative piece with 371 Productions and Planned Parenthood, “Across The Line,” uses on-scene, real audio of women trying to cross anti-abortion protest lines into Planned Parenthood clinics. The production team showed the film in communities with strong pro-life views and drew dramatic results.

After walking in the patients’ shoes as they attempted to get past protesters and enter the clinic, de la Peña and her crew noted a shift in viewer perception—an increase in sensitivity—which she felt might eventually affect voting on legislation that impacts safe access to health-care clinics.

“We’re not saying, ‘Change your views on abortion,'” de la Peña emphasized. “What we’re saying is, ‘There’s a common ground that we [can] both believe in.’ If empathy actually is a bridge between two different opinions, two different sides, I think that study indicated that there was a significant connection. There’s some definite evidence that bridges can be built using virtual reality.”

Technology and Storytelling

While the immersive experience de la Peña creates can be intense, for her, that is the point. In another VR film, After Solitary, de la Peña recreates the experience of Kenny Moore, a former inmate who spent nearly 20 years in prison, by simulating his time in solitary confinement.

“In terms of [simulating] solitary confinement, when you get into that cell and you feel that sense of claustrophobia of being inside a little space, I think that you begin to realize how inhumane it is to lock someone up in a place like that for years on end,” de la Peña said.

Like for de la Peña, VR filmmakers in the market today understand VR technology powers more engaging storytelling. According to Mark Bolas, an associate professor at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, while technology put the viewers inside the virtual environment, the secret to creating empathy lies not only in the technology, but also in its relationship to the storyline.

“We’ve pushed immersion to the point where users expect or assume a certain amount of agency,” Bolas said in reference to de la Peña’s “Hunger in Los Angeles. “The feeling participants had when they turn[ed] to help the victim and found they could not is profound.”

For Bolas, while the concept of immersion has previously been considered to be tech- rather than story-driven, “Hunger in Los Angeles” demonstrates that immersion is effective because of the viewers’ connection to the story.

Yet for de la Peña, as a reporter, this first-person storytelling brings up the question of bias. VR filmmakers such as de la Peña inevitably face the conundrum of how—and if—they should maintain objectivity when working on immersive stories about human suffering. It’s a theme that has significant implications for the future of the news and is something de la Peña has thought a lot about.

“Journalism has a really long history of confronting this issue, that objectivity can always be relative, based on who is making the piece. So the best thing is to not necessarily say, ‘Oh, this piece is completely objective and accurate,’ but rather be transparent,” de la Peña offered. “I think that is something that will continue to grow as we continue to make virtual reality pieces.”