Gabo Arora founded the United Nations VR, and has directed some of the more well-known VR empathy experiences starting with Clouds Over Sidra in December 2014 in collaboration with Chris Milk’s VR production house Within. Milk first showed Clouds Over Sidra during Sundance 2015, and featured it prominently in his VR as the Ultimate Empathy Machine TED talk in March 2015, which popularized VR’s unique abilities for cultivating empathy.
I had a chance to catch up with Arora at Oculus’ VR for Good premiere party at Sundance where we talked about producing Clouds Over Sidra, his new Lightshed production company, and the importance of storytelling in creating VR empathy experiences.
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Arora’s work has been at cross section of storytelling and technology, and diplomacy and humanitarian efforts. He studied film in college, but was unable to launch a successful film career in Hollywood, and instead turned towards humanitarian work with NGOs after 9/11 and eventually with the United Nations in 2009. He used his creative sensibilities to move beyond written text reports, and look to the power of new media to tell humanitarian stories. He had some success with collaborating with social media sensation Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton by coordinating a 50-day global trip with in 2014 in order to raise awareness of millennium development goals. He proved the power of using emerging technology to promote humanitarian goals.
After he was introduced to Within’s Chris Milk in 2014, he gathered enough support to create a virtual reality lab at UN staring with creating an experience about the Syrian refugee crisis. Clouds Over Sidra was shot in two days in December 2014 at the Za’atari Refugee Camp, which had over 80,000 Syrian refugees. Arora wanted to focus on a day in the life of a 12-year old refugee, and collaborated with his UN contacts to find the young female protagonist named Sidra. Arora said that a big key to cultivating empathy in virtual reality is to focus on the common ordinary aspects of day-to-day living whether that’s eating a meal or preparing for school. While some of these scenes would seem like non-sequiturs in a 2D film, the sense of presence that’s cultivated in VR gives the feeling of being transported into their world and a feeling of being more connected to the place and story.
Arora acknowledges that merely showing suffering of others can have the opposite effect of cultivating empathy. He cites Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a book that helped provide some guidelines for how to represent the pain of others. He’s aware that we can have a lustful relationship towards violence, and that there are risks of normalizing suffering can create an overwhelming sensory overload. He’s addresses some of Paul Bloom’s arguments in Against Empathy in that there’s a bias towards empathizing with people who look or act like you. If there’s too much of a difference, then it can be difficult to connect through on any common ground. This is a big reason why Arora has typically focused on finding ways of representing the moments of common humanity within the larger context of fleeing from war or coping with a spreading disease like Ebola.
Arora was able to show that Clouds Over Sidra was able to help the United Nations beat their projected fundraising goal of $2.3 billion dollars by raising over $3.8 billion, but he’s much more confident in showing the UNICEF’s numbers of being able to double face-to-face donations from 1 in 12 without VR to 1 in 6 with VR with an increase of 10% per donation. With these types of numbers, there’s been a bit of a gold rush for NGOs to start making VR experiences for a wide range of causes, but Arora cautions that not all have been successful because not all of them have had an emphasis on good storytelling or the technical expertise that he’s enjoyed with his collaborations with Within.
Hamlet on the Holodeck author Janet H. Murray recently echoed the importance of good storytelling in VR experiences by saying that “empathy in great literature or journalism comes from well-chosen and highly specific stories, insightful interpretation, and strong compositional skills within a mature medium of communication. A VR headset is not a mature medium — it is only a platform, and an unstable and uncomfortable one at that.” The storytelling conventions of VR are still emerging, and the early VR empathy pieces have been largely relying upon conventions of traditional filmmaking.
Arora admits that there’s a certain formulaic structure that most of these early VR empathy pieces have taken that rely upon voice over narration, but he says that he started to dial back the voice overs in his most recent piece The Ground Beneath Her. He says that his recent collaboration with Milk on the U2 Song for Someone music video showed him that there’s a lot that can be communicated without resorting to voice overs.
Murray argues that “VR is not a film to be watched but a virtual space to be visited and navigated through,” and she actually recommends “no voice-overs, no text overlays, no background music.” I’ve independently come to the same conclusion, and generally agree with this sentiment because most voice over narrations or translations feel scripted and stilted. They are also often recorded within a studio that doesn’t match the direct and reflected sounds of the physical locations that are shown, which creates a fidelity mismatch that can break presence and prevent me from feeling completely immersed within the soundscapes of another place.
I’ve found that the cinéma vérité approach of having authentic dialog spoken directly within a scene works really well, or that it works best if the audio is directing me to pay attention to specific aspects to the physical locations that are being shown. After watching all ten of the Oculus for Good pieces at Sundance, one of the most common things that I saw is not having the physical location match whatever is being talked about. Sometimes they’re interesting locations to look at, but it ends up putting the majority of storytelling responsibility within the audio. If the audio were to be taken away, then the visual storytelling isn’t strong enough to stand on it’s own.
6×9’s Francesca Panetta used audio tour guides as an inspiration for how to use audio in order to cultivate a deeper sense of presence within the physical location being shown. One live-action VR piece that does this really well was a cinéma vérité piece by Condition One called Fierce Compassion, which features an animal rights activist speaking on camera taking you on a guided tour through an open rescue as it’s happening. The live delivery of narration feels much more dynamic when it’s spoken within the moment, and feels much more satisfying than a scripted narration that’s written and recorded after the fact.
A challenging limitation to many NGO empathy pieces is that they often feature non-English speakers who need to be translated later by a translator who doesn’t always match the emotional authenticity and dynamic speaking style of the original speaker. Emotional authenticity and capturing a live performance are some key elements of what I’ve found makes a live-action VR experience so captivating, but it’s been rare to find that in VR productions so far. There are often big constraints of limited time and budgets, which means that most of them end up featuring voice over narratives after the fact since this is the easiest way of telling a more sophisticated story. This formula has proven to be successful for Arora’s empathy pieces so far, but it still feels like a hybrid between traditional filmmaking techniques and what virtual reality experiences will eventually move towards, which I think Murray quite presciently lays out in her piece about emerging immersive storyforms.
Arora’s work with the UN in collaboration with Within has inspired everyone from the New York Times VR to Oculus’s VR for Good program and HTC’s VR for Impact. It also inspired Chris Milk’s TED talk about VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, which is a meme that has been cited on the Voices of VR podcast dozens of times.
But the film medium is also a powerful empathy machine as Arora cites Moonlight as a particularly powerful empathy piece that was released in 2016. Roger Ebert actually cited movies as the “most powerful empathy machine” during his Walk of Fame speech in 2005. He said:
We are born into a box of space and time. We are who and when and what we are and we’re going to be that person until we die. But if we remain only that person, we will never grow and we will never change and things will never get better.
Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.
The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.
Ebert’s words about film as a powerful empathy machine as just as true today as when he said it in 2005. I do believe that virtual reality has the power to create an even deeper sense of embodied presence that can trigger mirror neurons, and may eventually prove to become the “ultimate empathy machine.” VR may also eventually allow us to virtually walk in someone else’s shoes to the point where our brains may not be able to tell the difference between what’s reality and what’s a simulation. But as Murray warns, “empathy is not something that automatically happens when a user puts on a headset.” It’s something that is accomplished through evolving narrative techniques to take full advantage of the unique affordances of VR, and at the end of the day will come down to good storytelling just like any other medium.