VR Indifference - A Meh Moment

My mission is to help produce as many social good virtual reality experiences as possible.

I do this from a research perspective, conducting qualitative research side-by-side with users as they move through a VR experience.  

It began as a passion project, because the industry was not yet ready to invest in user engagement research.  I used Within's experience Clouds Over Sidra, about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl who'd spent the last year and a half in a Jordan camp.  This was the first VR experience I had, and it affected me profoundly.  It's 360 video - not computer generated or rendered.  Real footage, real people, real time.  Few people react as emotionally as I did to 360 films.  I walked away with raccoon eyes and tears streaming down my face.  

Naturally, I assumed (must.break.that.habit.) that all other humans would be as effected as I was. One of the first people I tested the experience on was my daughter, who's very close in age to Sidra.  This happened over a year ago and I'm only getting the guts to write about it now.  She pretty much had a meh moment.  I asked her all of the attitudinal questions to see if perhaps she had a deeper connection with the girl/film than I'd uncovered. Nope.  This is not parental bias when I tell you that I truly have an altruistic, often overly empathic child, who teaches me about compassion on the regular. So you can see why this put a wrench in my theory that VR is a reliable driver of empathy. 

What struck me was her summary comment:  "It was nice to see that she did normal stuff like playing soccer and having a family dinner in their tent, and going to school.  It didn't seem that different [from my life].' 

Jaw. On floor now. 

Trying desperately to seem surprised instead of appalled, I attempted more detail but she didn't have much more to add.  Rationally, I know that every experience lands differently on every viewer.  I also know that as a social scientist and researcher, I expect a plateau in the VR empathy trigger.  As VR storytelling becomes more common, I've often imagined a tipping point where we become desensitized to the narrative experiences that have a goal of eliciting compassion. Human, animal, and environmental rights initiatives realize that getting someone to care about climate change, for example, will happen far quicker by putting a viewer in their flooded house, on their own street, 5 years from now after a natural disaster induced by global warming.  

I also know that as a social scientist and researcher, I expect a plateau in the VR empathy trigger.

I didn't expect an American girl, one year yet a world of distance apart from a Syrian refugee peer, to come away thinking it wasn't so bad. Could I say she was seeing the positive in Sidra's situation?  Yes.  Positivity is her world view.  But she did not bring up Sidra crying on the makeshift bed, or being unfamiliar with the country or culture of Jordan, or...living in a tent. Certainly other viewers had reactions somewhere between my daughter's and mine, but it was my girl who illuminated that VR's potential to trigger empathy isn't a given.  There were a few on the other end, notably a 13 year old boy who befriended a refugee (close in age)  that came to his town a year after I'd shown him the film.  He had a direct line; he could make a direct comparison. The film put me in Sidra's situation; it didn't do that for my daughter.  

Part of it is age, circumstance, and interest.  She has talked about other VR games and experiences with friends with immense excitement.  Perhaps adults can walk in another's shoes more expertly than kids, but again - my hypothesis would have been the other way around. 

No immersive experience will be all things to all people.  

Right now, conventions are being developed, and cinematic and content choices being made with hopes of effecting attitude and behavior change.  If I'd developed a study to understand how a film like Clouds Over Sidra would effect the thoughts and behavior of kids in her age group (getting involved in refugee causes, no bullying, etc.), I wonder how many other meh reactions I would find? I would have guessed few, and that's why research is so sorely needed in VR. Unbiased data, sans assumptions.  I hope for the potential of VR that empathy, compassion and behavior change continue to be conjured by the medium.  I hope that we invest in learning what users really think and feel.   

We are only beginning to know its impact.  We must keep the research fires burning. In fact, we need a smolder to make experiences that cast the widest net and drive a new level of human compassion.