Can Virtual Reality Change Minds on Social Issues?

These activists are harnessing the power of VR to tackle everything from abortion to workplace harassment.

Can Virtual Reality Change Minds on Social Issues?

In 2004, Cathy Hackl may have watched more violent videos than anyone in America. While working in video production at CNN, part of Hackl’s job was to watch the raw video coming in from the Iraq War and flag sensitive material so that the cable channel’s local partners could warn viewers before they saw something graphic. In order to put this protection in place for viewers, Hackl had to immerse herself in such images and scenes for hours at a time. She sifted through beheadings, the bodies of soldiers being dragged, anything that might set off cable’s red flags. It was exhausting and traumatizing, but Hackl was most disturbed by how it began to change her.

“When you do that kind of job, you kind of turn your humanity switch off a little bit,” she says. She became desensitized to these horrific images. Her ability to empathize took a backseat – it had to.

It wasn’t until two years ago – more than a decade after she began doing that work – that she had the visceral experience of feeling that switch turn back on. She had been experimenting with 360 video, a technique that allows the viewer to feel surrounded by whatever they’re watching. While attending a tech conference, she donned an HTC VIVE virtual reality headset and found herself in a solitary confinement cell.

“Within a couple of minutes, I was completely claustrophobic,” she says. The experience, called 6×9, was created by The Guardian. In 6×9, while wearing a VR headset, the viewer feels what it’s like to be in solitary confinement. They are transported to a tiny cell block and are completely immersed, for a time, in that lonely, frightening atmosphere.

From the trailer of “6×9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement,” produced by the Guardian.

Even those watching in an internet browser can manipulate the video as if they are moving around inside it. In journalistic endeavors, the goal is always to help people understand the experiences they’re learning about, and with empathy can come a host of other feelings and effects.

“When I took the headset off, something clicked,” says Hackl. “The humanity switch turned back on. I felt like I was actually walking in someone else’s shoes.”

Hackl says she didn’t just feel sorry for people in solitary confinement after this visceral experience, she wanted to do something for them. After she took the headset off, she decided she needed to be part of this VR movement. She is now a consultant for some of the top virtual reality and augmented reality studios making experiences with a social impact focus. She is on the board of Virtual Relief, a nonprofit that uses the technology to help distract, entertain and rehabilitate homebound seniors and hospitals patients, and she considers herself an evangelist for the power of this technology.

The experience Hackl described is what some social scientists call compassionate empathy, which moves a person to respond to another’s emotional state with some kind of action, as compared with cognitive empathy, also known as “perspective-taking,” which is simply understanding another person’s mental state. Scientists believe most people are born with the ability to empathize with others, but as we spend less and less time in face-to-face communication, the nuances can become lost. Researchers have worried for decades about what television, video games, cell phones, social media, and now augmented and virtual reality would do to our ability to connect with one another. While some studies have shown a correlation between excessive technology use and a decline in social connection, there is a growing movement recognizing that if it’s possible to decrease people’s capacity for empathy using technology, it must be possible to do the opposite as well.

A virtual reality camera rig called the GoPro Freedom 360. (Photo by Vincent Tullo for Narratively)

VR technology has been evolving for decades, but until relatively recently it was considered too expensive and technically demanding for most uses outside of video games. It required a heavy and pricey collection of camera equipment, plus software, coding, and digital animation expertise. Not to mention the fact that anyone who wanted to experience VR needed to wear a heavy, clunky headset. In 2015, tech entrepreneur and artist Chris Milk gave a TED Talk in which he called virtual reality “the empathy machine” for its capacity to put people more directly in others’ shoes than any other kind of technology. At the time, many still saw this as hyperbole. There were still few companies outside the gaming world that felt comfortable investing in content or hardware that was so inaccessible. But now, as both headsets and the technology to produce VR experiences have become cheaper and easier to use, activists and nonprofits are starting to really test the empathy machine hypothesis. The United Nations has developed an experience that allows people to get a glimpse of life as Syrian refugees; multiple VR experiences give viewers the feeling of speaking directly to sexual assault or Holocaust survivors; nonprofits are using the Android app Within to tell VR stories that raise awareness and sometimes money for social and environmental causes.

One question remaining is whether this can create change at scale. Hackl admits that a lot of what’s out there right now is gimmicky, showing off the bells and whistles. If you test out a VR experience now, it’s likely meant to wow you more than convey much serious information. The companies and organizations making content still need to convince you – and in some cases, themselves – to try another, and another. But that’s what happens when any new technology comes of age.

“The people who are actually spending a lot of time crafting these stories and creating experiences are really moving the needle,” Hackl says. “I can turn off my phone or television, or take off a headset, but what really matters is what stays with you.”

The thing that sticks with most people who experience the Planned Parenthood VR film “Across the Line” is the harsh, accusing voice of a man outside the clinic. “You’re a whore, shame on you, maybe your parents should have aborted you!” he screams. The viewer can’t see the man shouting it, but his voice is very real, and feels less than a foot away. “Across the Line” gives a sense of what it’s like to access abortion care at a clinic ringed by protesters. In recent years there has been an uptick in women telling their stories of being accosted by protesters outside clinics, but there’s something about feeling surrounded by them in VR that triggers a different level of empathy. Part of “Across the Line,” created with the help of immersive journalist Nonny de la Peña, is shot documentary-style with a 360-degree camera and actors playing patients and protesters. That part provides tension, but it’s when you get to the front of the clinic that things really start to feel visceral. The people around you become digital animations, but their voices are real – recorded outside an actual Planned Parenthood clinic as patients walked in. Their words are right in your ears and you can’t easily look away from their angry faces. 

Many people are shaken when they take off their headsets. At the VR for Change Summit in New York in August, Planned Parenthood’s executive vice president and chief brand and experience officer, Dawn Laguens, shared the story of a conservative, anti-choice lawmaker who donned a headset, viewed “Across the Line,” and left in a fury about the way the protesters treated the patients. This is the most common way that people are moved by these experiences – few have immediate life-changing experiences, but instead feel themselves disturbed or inspired enough to start thinking about something a bit differently. It works for people who are already amenable to change as well, of course, but in sometimes surprising ways. Laguens also spoke of a man who had been a clinic escort for more than a decade who left the Across the Line experience in tears, realizing that he’d long since learned to block out the jeers and shouts and protesters, but that wasn’t possible for the women walking right beside him.

A still frame from Planned Parenthood’s virtual reality experience, “Across the Line,” which brings viewers through an experience of visiting an abortion clinic amid crowds of protestors.

There are still challenges with VR. It’s hard to get 360 video and sound from an event to mesh together well in a VR experience, so they can sometimes feel a bit less than immersive. But Planned Parenthood conducted evaluations with the help of an outside organization and found that people were genuinely moved. They surveyed a group that was majority male, predominantly white, and mostly liberal, and even with that last demographic they found that the group that saw “Across the Line” disapproved of some types of harassment more than those who hadn’t seen it. Perhaps more significantly, the experience was linked to attitude changes in people who reported having moderate or slightly conservative political views. After the experience, many of those people shifted their views to believing that protesters should not share anti-abortion views outside clinics, and some even came to “strongly agree” with the statement that they would support a woman who had an abortion by driving her to an appointment, “even if I didn’t agree with her decision.”

Changing views about abortion is perhaps the gold standard for changing minds via social media, but the technology is being used to address more subtle harassment and discrimination as well.

Until a few years ago, Natalie Egan was living in a bubble. By her own admission, she was isolated from the way most people lived, working as a successful entrepreneur with highly coveted venture capital suitors. At the time she also presented as a man in an industry dominated by men.

“We’re naturally wired with empathy, but I think that particular dynamic can really isolate people from reality and the rest of the world,” she says.

Then she came out as a trans woman, began to physically transition, and the empathy gap became more clear than it had ever been. As she began to move through the world perceived as a woman instead of a man, the difference in how she was treated was stark. She was subject to disrespectful language and jokes, and during transactions related to both life and work she said some people refused to look her in the eye.

“I went from being in a privileged space to being on the outer edges of one of the most marginalized communities in the world,” Egan says.

She wanted her peers in the business world to understand just how divergent the experiences of men and women in the industry could be. In 2016 she launched Translator, which began as a social network for the transgender community, but soon morphed into a vehicle for technology-assisted diversity and inclusion experiences for organizations and corporations of all sizes. The company uses chat bots, apps, and customized virtual reality experiences to bring the largely white and male employee base of organizations like the New York City Department of Education and the digital consultancy Rain a little closer to understanding what the women, gender nonconforming people, people with disabilities and people of color around them experience on a daily basis.

One of the strongest tools is the ability to highlight individuals’ unconscious bias, even though it can be agitating for some people, says Egan.

Professor Bob Sacha, left, shows students a GoPro Omni camera rig at the CUNY School of Journalism in New York City. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)

We engage with people differently at a cocktail party than we do when we see them on the street, for example. Simulating these experiences can bring up some uncomfortable truths about unconscious bias. Translator doesn’t have stock VR experiences; instead, they make bespoke ones for each client. In one recent experience, participants donned a headset to find themselves in several different situations with the same people — a dark street, a cocktail party, a work meeting. They were then asked to anonymously log their gut feelings each time. Sometimes, those feelings don’t match up. It’s not a pleasant experience, but that’s the point. And it’s hard to deny that for people open to it, it works.

“It’s amazing, when you change the context, how much people’s attitude and behavior shifts,” says Egan.

Egan and her team are currently working on a custom VR unconscious bias experience for one of the largest media companies in the U.S. This technology can still be very expensive, but group experiences like those in an office setting can have a real impact.

In fact, that sometimes happens unintentionally. Andrew Daffy, an artist and technologist based in London, last year created a VR experience called HOLO DOODLE that allowed two people to play Pictionary together in a VR universe as pink monkeys. It was just for fun, but when people began talking about how it made them feel less inhibited and more able to communicate with the person they played with, Daffy and his team decided to make some changes. Last year at the annual computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, they debuted a new version of the game, called I Am A Robot, that allowed groups of people to don headsets and become genderless robots at either a ballet recital, cocktail gathering, or dance party. The response from participants was surprising – men in suits who swore they wouldn’t dance became entirely different people when in the genderless VR world – but it was the experience of two volunteers that moved Daffy most: one had social anxiety and had struggled to enjoy herself at the conference until she put the headset on and, inhibitions gone, danced and laughed for the first time in days. Another said they felt comfortable being gender-free for the first time in their life.

Bob Sacha demonstrates editing software during a virtual reality class at the CUNY School of Journalism. (Photo by Vincent Tullo)

“We didn’t make this to create social change, we just stumbled across it and thought, ‘holy shit, this is the area we should be going into. It doesn’t have to be a game,’” he says.

As technology continues to evolve, people are naturally concerned about what will happen to our ability to connect with one another as humans. While most technologists agree there are some concerns, they are also largely optimistic about the positive impact technology can have.

“It’s understandable to be worried about manipulation, and this kind of technology can seem so sci-fi and geeky and horrid,” Daffy says. “But there can also be such beauty.”