“It was too close for comfort, but maybe that was the point,” writes The Case Foundation’s Louise Storm of her first virtual reality experience. Viewing the New York Times’ series “The Displaced”—which tells the stories of three children displaced by war—her initial response was tears. But then the chief of staff to CEO Jean Case began to think about all the uses of the technology for social impact. “I can’t wait to see what the clever do-gooders of the world do next with this medium,” she observes.

By all accounts, 2016 will be the breakout year for VR—a technology that has long been percolating in labs, arcades and the minds of sci-fi authors. In November, the Times piqued the interest of 1.3 million subscribers (and their kids) by distributing Google Cardboard headsets. In February, the Internet “lost its mind” over the photo of Mark Zuckerberg (above) strolling through a room of headset-clad audience members at the 2016 Mobile World Congress. Next week, on March 28, the eagerly anticipated Oculus Rift headset will be released for consumer purchase, with the release of the HTC Vive headset coming fast on its heels in April.
knight vrFoundations, nonprofits and public interest media makers are all getting into the game. Just in the past week, a new batch of reports on VR came out of SXSW, including the release of a new Knight Foundation-funded report, Viewing the Future? Virtual Reality in Journalism at a meetup with reporters, technologists and filmmakers. And the Tribeca Film Festival in April looks to be funders’ next destination to sample VR documentary and reporting projects.
Over the past six months, we’ve convened and interviewed public-interest VR makers and funders at a series of other media and ideas festivals, including PopTech, Sundance, frank, IDFA and Journalism Interactive. We’ve also witnessed a growing battle to define what VR is, exactly.
Swirling around in all of the hype and confusion are the usual impact questions: How does this emerging media form work to engage users in social issues? What’s the relationship between engagement, knowledge, story and action? And what does this all cost?
Empathy machines?
For many, in the case of VR, the answer to the first question is “empathy.” The technology gives users new abilities: to inhabit the perspectives of others; to experience immersion in environments as disparate as the ocean, an explosion, or solitary confinement; to swap bodies with those unlike themselves.
“[R]esearchers working with contemporary versions of virtual reality praise headsets like the Oculus Rift for their potential uses as “empathy machines,” writes Ava Kofman in Guernica. “The media has quickly picked up on this catchphrase, explaining in article after article that cinematic, roleplaying, and gaming experiences in virtual reality might make us feel and act like better people.”
But, she asks, “does this mean that virtual reality works differently than, say, a novel, in sparking our empathic connections? Or is all of the hype simply part of our ritual shock of the new?”
This is the question that Dan Archer—the founder of a production company aptly called Empathetic Media—will be addressing as a 2016 research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. In a session we organized for funders at the frank conference back in February, Archer noted the power that VR experiences have to counteract “the idea of one single truth,” by letting users interact with characters who have multiple perspectives on a contested situation.
For example, hisfergusonfirsthand Ferguson Firsthand experience—published in conjunction with Fusion—allows users to “walk through” the site of the shooting scene in Ferguson, Mo., accessing different eyewitness accounts of the event.
While Archer’s work is predicated on the assumption that being able to inhabit and interact with such spaces engages users more deeply, his research proposal acknowledges that this has yet to be fully proven. “360 videos and computer-generated virtual reality environments are at the forefront of immersive storytelling, yet there have been no conclusive studies to empirically prove their alleged merits, such as: heightened empathy; higher probability of proactive change in the user; prolonged time spent inside the story; and increased shareability,” it reads. Archer and his team will examine users’ emotional engagement and how well they retain information, as well as conduct a field scan to see how VR and 360 video producers are metering use.
Empathy is also at the center of critical analysis of one of the most-lauded “VR for good” productions, Clouds Over Sidra. A collaboration of the UN Millennum Campaign (UNMC), UNICEF Jordan, and Samsung produced by Chris Milk of and Gabo Arora of Vrse.works, it tells the story of Sidra, a young girl living in the Za’atari Syrian refugee camp. Milk’s related TED talk on capturing her experiences and “how virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine” has been viewed nearly 1.3 million times.
Reviewer Erica Swallow calls Clouds Over Sidra a “breakthrough in humanity. Unlike other forms of videography, the Oculus experience enables a viewer to become part of her setting and empathize more deeply with the characters she encounters. As Sidra spoke, I not only saw how moved she was in sharing her story, noting when she heroically tried to hide her tears or smiled at a happy thought, but I also looked around her family’s makeshift tent, imagining what it was like to live there. … This new mode of storytelling lets viewers choose the moments they take in and dive deeper into experiences that move them. Every second is a fully immersive, choose-your-own-adventure exploration.”
The strategy for distributing this powerful narrative has been to target influencers who attend such international gatherings as the World Economic Forum, TED, the World Education Summit, and others. “Virtual reality in the past was previously used almost exclusively in the gaming industry, and most recently in music. This is the first time it is being used for a pressing global issue, and the feeling of presence is immensely powerful,” says Arora. “We hope it will create empathy, inspiring decision makers to make commitments towards helping to address the refugee crisis.”
This approach seems to be yielding strong results. According to Blake Harris of Fast Company, it was screened at last year’s Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria last March, and pledges were up $1.5 billion above projections. UNICEF is also working to make Clouds Over Sidra available to the broader public through “man-on-the-street campaigns” using Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear headsets in 40-plus countries.
On the other hand…
Not all reactions to VR are so unreservedly positive. For one thing, some viewers literally can’t stomach the experience —motion sickness is still a problem for many.
VR experiences are making critics queasy for other reasons. Reactions can be unpredictable and sometimes disturbing. At one Sundance panel on immersive journalism, an audience member questioned the ethics of throwing viewers directly into traumatic situations, noting that she had nightmares after watching an exposé of factory farms produced by Jose Valle of Animal Equality.
In The Verge, Adi Robinson reports that experiencing Across the Line—which puts users in the shoes of a Planned Parenthood patient being harassed by protesters as she entered a clinic — did not prompt empathy for her, but instead a “cold, vicious consideration of whether one could identify, track down, and kill someone who firmly deserves it—or, if they prove unavailable, someone sufficiently similar in outlook.” While engaging users may seem like a laudable goal, first-degree murder probably isn’t the desired outcome.
At our frank gathering, veteran storyteller Andy Goodman cautioned against a rush to embrace the latest media gizmos.”Any good storyteller is creating an immersive world,” he said, and many a previous movement has been launched by a powerful narrative. Learning how to craft stories well rather than just tweak users’ emotions is the next hurdle for VR producers.
Reactions such as these only scratch the surface of a much larger debate that will be raging for the next several years as VR moves from thrilling fad to a utility we all carry in our back pockets. We’ll continue to track that debate—and the tools for assessing the impact of this and other emerging media platforms—right here.

About the Author
Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark

Research Consultant

Jessica is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders, and the founder and director of media production/strategy firm Dot Connector Studio. She is also currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. Previously, she served as the media strategist for AIR’s groundbreaking Localore project, the director of the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at D.C.-based think tank the New America Foundation. Over the past decade, she has led research and convenings with high-profile universities and national media networks, including NPR, PBS, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, MIT, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010), and a longtime independent journalist.