During a TED Talk in 2015, Chris Milk, founder of VR production company Milk Studios, deemed virtual reality “the ultimate empathy machine,” because you can insert yourself into the scenes and feel as if you are actually there. Since Milk’s proclamation, everyone from the United Nations to the NBA has tried to inspire real emotions from virtual worlds. At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival Virtual Arcade, four exceptional VR experiences did just that.
1,000 Cut Journey
1,000 Cut Journey places you in the body of Michael Sterling, a black man, as he faces racism as a pre-school child, a teenager, and a young adult. You come face to face with overt, as well as subtle, forms of racism, such as a white kindergarten teacher scolding you for the same behavior your white classmate exhibited moments earlier. The graphics are far from photorealistic, but it’s how the experience leverages VR conventions that elicits the most empathy.
Helplessness stiffens your body when the police hop out of the squad car to confront you and viciously command you to put your hands up even after you have raised both HTC Vive controllers. The experience then cuts to you staring at the ground, forcing your instinct to look around and see what’s happened. Once you raise your head to do so, the police have their hands on their holsters, and a sharp ping of fear hits your chest from simply following your instincts.
Vestige is a room-scale VR experience centered on its main character, Lisa Elin, as she remembers her dead husband, Erik, over a phone call. Based on Elin’s true story of losing her love, Vestige places you in darkness. The only lights attracting your eyes are abstract, colorful lines that shape-shift to form different memories as Elin tearfully narrates. The experience changes the memories displayed depending on where you look, and for how long.
Elin’s voice wavers between sullen and optimistic, and the spatial audio makes her recollections feel like they’re surrounding you. You feel incapable of escaping her sorrow. When she holds her dying husband in her arms on his death bed, the lines that form both their bodies mix, and they appear to be one person. Vestige is as dazzling as it is heartbreaking.
iNk Studio’s large-scale VR experience Hero was by far the most popular VR experience at the Tribeca Film Festival, and won the festival’s Storyscapes award. The experience has you strap on a HP Z VR Backpack, which lets you move around a Syrian town during an ostensibly normal day. Suddenly, an air strike hits, and the peaceful scene turns into fire, rubble, and bodies in a matter of seconds. The length of the experience is dependent on which path you take, but even after a few minutes, Hero will overcome you with emotion.
Anxiety, fear, and empathy converge when you’re able to walk around the carnage, bend down to look into the dead eyes of the deceased, and are led down certain paths by heart-wrenching screams. One possible path asks you to physically walk across a narrow ledge to rescue a little girl crying for help. Even if you don’t have a fear of heights, the chaos of the scene will have you thinking twice. With the little girl’s screams pumping into your ears, and the gruesome sights of dismembered people fresh in your mind, it’ll be hard to remember you’re in a simulation.
The Day The World Changed
The Day The World Changed is a room-scale VR experience that turns a history lesson into a horror story. The experience immerses you in the devastating effects of the United States atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 by placing you inside the rubble of a building destroyed by the blast. You’re able to pick up discarded artifacts, which then trigger the ghostly voices of real-life testimonials from people who were either in the building after the blast, or knew people who were. The experience is designed for multiple people simultaneously. When each person picks up a separate artifact, the testimonials play together, so you’re surrounded by sorrowful tales.
At the end, you are lifted from the rubble as a deluge of photos of hundreds of people murdered by the atomic bomb flash, followed by a count of the mind-blowing number of nuclear weapons countries have stockpiled. Then your ascension halts, and you are surrounded by missiles pointing directly at you. The fear of those missiles launching at me had my heart pounding.