Oculus Whiffed

Virtual reality was supposed to help us understand each other unlike any other medium. That’s a delusion.

PBS Frontline

A year and a half was how long Kenny Moore expected to serve in Maine State Prison when he was found guilty of aggravated assault, burglary, and theft as a teenager. He spent the next two decades in and out of prison on compounding charges, five of those years in solitary confinement. Sitting on a hard, narrow bed between dirty cinderblock walls, Moore recalls the mental decline he suffered during that desperate half-decade in the VR documentary After Solitary, a nine-minute short produced in partnership with PBS’s Frontline that was featured at last week’s AFI Film Festival.

Once, over three days, Moore pulled out all the hair on his body. He cut his wrists repeatedly and wrote on the wall with his blood. He attacked the guards. That led to a longer stint in solitary. He also learned how to cope by sending secret messages to other inmates. It’s hard to imagine what that experience must’ve been like, but After Solitary tries to help us see it. Sometimes, Moore vanishes and the viewer is left alone in his former cell, a modern-day dungeon that’s meant as a punishment within a punishment. Inside the immersion of an Oculus Rift, I felt many of the emotions Moore might have felt during his first few minutes of solitary: fear, disgust, anger, and claustrophobia. Feeling trapped in the cell and, admittedly, woozy after a day of VR, I ripped the headset off my face—and was relieved I could do so.

Urgent and upsetting, After Solitary exemplifies the once-glittering, now-fading hope that VR’s hypemen (and women) extol about the technology. In a 2015 TED talk, Chris Milk, founder and CEO of the VR company Within, called virtual reality the “ultimate empathy machine.” (Milk likely borrowed the phrase “empathy machine” from the late Roger Ebert, who had called cinema “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” Television and the novel arguably have greater claims on that title, but that’s a debate for another time.) VR is a medium with tremendous artistic potential, but many of the titles that have grabbed the most attention so far are journalistic projects that take viewers into humanitarian crises, like Project Syria and Clouds Over Sidra, both of which focus on the plight of Syrian child refugees. They want to make us feel—really feel—for their subjects.

It’s certainly heartwarming that so many VR creators are interested in creating empathy for people and communities in need. But the idea that spending 10 or 15 minutes in virtual reality can dramatically realign a viewer’s sympathies is a delusion. And worse yet, relatively unchallenged self-promotion from an industry that wants to sell the public on its innovations’ potential good and distract from their current and inevitable abuses.

The summary that Frontline’s official YouTube account provides for After Solitary is “What’s it really like to be locked up in solitary confinement?” But it would be an insult to inmates in solitary for me to say that, after watching a VR film one-third the length of the average sitcom, I have any idea what it’s like to be alone and confined for days or months or years on end. The sensory immersion that VR facilitates isn’t context, or a wearing down after repetition, or having an open mind about the subject at hand. And as Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness” illustrated, feeling something, even deep in your gut, isn’t the same thing as understanding it. Watching the current sexual harassment and assault scandals unfold, I’d love for there to be a kind of employee training in which men can learn through virtual reality what it feels like to be sexually demeaned or exploited on the job. But incidences of harassment are informed by power dynamics that can be hard to gauge and histories of sexist experiences. And even if a committed lecher could be convinced to undergo such training, VR isn’t brainwashing. No matter how advanced the tech gets, it can’t make anyone care against their will.

The backlash against the “VR as the ultimate empathy machine” idea appears to be in full swing. Most recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual visit to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico was instantly met with accusations of tone-deafness. Without the background to contextualize what viewers are seeing, immersive projects focusing on calamities risk becoming disaster porn—a charge already launched at Zuckerberg’s VR tour and Clouds Over Sidra, a collaboration between Within and the United Nations that was criticized, in part, for depoliticizing the refugee crisis. Other types of well-meaning empathy-creation projects have come under fire as well. Some disability simulations, like those replicating blindness, have been indicted for specious or patronizing depictions of life with an impairment.

Then there’s the unfortunate reality that the creators who are getting into VR during its current infancy are the ones who can afford to do so with little promise of financial reward. At Engadget’s Alternate Realities conference last week, Ruthie Doyle, the program manager of the Sundance Institute’s VR lab, bemoaned that the hardships of artistic sustainability have already created a diversity problem among the ranks of virtual-reality creators. Sure, any hobbyist can download the free version of Unity, the game designer engine, and a cheap 360-degree camera can be had on Amazon for less than $100. But time, labor, and technological know-how remain significant hurdles for would-be creators.

Filmmaker Rosie Haber (full disclosure: a friend) compared where VR is now to the early years of cinema, when many films were “anthropological exercises.” However well-intentioned, the current crop of journalistic immersion might be the latest incarnation of Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 documentary about the life of an Inuit man in the Canadian Arctic. The very concept of empathy creation through VR is an Othering process: So-and-so’s experiences are so vastly different from yours, it’s presumed, that you can only understand their situation if you step into their shoes.

For the in-the-works Belle of the Ball, Haber (who is genderqueer and uses the pronoun they) is trying to figure out how to dismantle some of the structural inequalities that have seemingly already become part of virtual reality. VR may have limited value as an empathy machine, but it has more than zero. If creators and especially users want to use virtual reality as such a force for understanding, they can find ways to do so. With their collaborator Silas Howard, a director on the TV series Transparent, Haber has come up with a privilege-aware strategy of telling true-to-life stories of queer homeless youth while steering clear of tragedy porn. To that end, the Belle of the Ball creators balance helplessness with ecstasy. A day begun on the streets of New York City ends with a night at a drag ball, with a story that’s written with the input from a member of the queer kiki scene as well as former homeless youth. “In order to empathize with someone, you need to humanize them first,” Haber says, which is why they are skeptical that simple immersion can create lasting connection with a subject. A more natural goal for that immersion, theorizes Haber, might be staying present. It’s an “uninterrupted space,” they observe. “One of the things I love about VR is that you can’t check your phone.”

Artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin is equally skeptical that virtual reality can make humanity a nicer, kinder species. But, she believes, it might help us communicate with one another better. At Alternate Realities, Winger-Bearskin unveiled Your Hands Are Feet, which she directed with Sarah Rothberg. It’s a delightfully body-obsessed animated game in which the user throws eggs out the window, shaves a giant leg, tries to touch as many eyeballs as possible, watches others’ eyeballs fall out of their head and, per the title, contends with hands that have become feet.* The inspiration for these images came from feelings Winger-Bearskin wanted to convey to others—for example, that on a particularly clumsy day, her upper and lower limbs seem to have changed places.

The future of VR has largely been imagined as a solitary one, but Winger-Bearskin believes virtual reality can be a social space too, something akin to texting or Facebook (whose founder has envisioned the technology being used in similar terms). Your Hands Are Feet is Winger-Bearskin’s attempt at envisaging such a connected future, as it “communicates [her] feelings through interactivity.” By her reckoning, when we reach a hypothetical VRBook, we might be able to create empathy among each other more visually, like expressing how we feel through an image of our stomach in knots, the way you might send a GIF on WhatsApp to a friend today to relay your OMG. Thus, the radical idea that Winger-Bearskin proposes is that VR could be used to create or strengthen connections within pre-existing communities, instead of or in addition to a refugee across the world.

As worthy as these attempts to think outside the empathy-machine box are, it’s important to keep in mind that as long as we’re debating VR’s possible compassionate effects, we’re letting the industry determine how we’re talking about its tech. And that focus on virtual reality’s ostensible benefits crowds out the discussions we should be having about the technology’s negative outcomes. One doesn’t need to be a dystopia-guzzling paranoiac to wonder about the possible abuses of VR’s immersive qualities. Sexual harassment in virtual-reality gaming is already a problem. Advertisements in such a heady, absorbing medium might become more compelling or harder to detect, especially for children, if and when regulation lags in separating commercials from content. Headsets or software might be hacked to insert violent, degrading, or otherwise nasty images the way trolls tweet pictures of concentration camps, for example, at Jewish journalists they don’t like. It’s lovely to pretend that technological advances will only be used for good. But it’s time that we consider why we need so many empathy machines in the first place.

*Correction, Nov. 21, 2017: This article originally omitted the co-director of Your Hands Are Feet, Sarah Rothberg. (Return.)