Beyond Entertainment: Virtual Reality as an Empathy Machine

(Also published at

The idea that we could transcend our own reality and enter into another has tantalised us since the glitchy infancy of Virtual Reality, in the late 80s. Back then, clunky visuals obstructed our vision of what could be. Today, audiences are able to enjoy the immersive and transportive experience imagined at its conception. This progress has allowed the application of Virtual Reality to extend beyond entertainment, and enter into a variety of new and exciting contexts.

Virtual Reality technology aims to be an immersive multi-media or computer-simulated replication of life; a holistic sensory experience. The most advanced, up-to-date systems use stereoscopic displays to simulate sight, and tactile feedback technologies, known as forced feedback, to replicate touch sensation. The combined effect can either be convincingly lifelike, or deliberately other-worldly. Regardless, the experience is a persuasive invitation to explore the confines of reality and the juicy territory of the metaphysical. Think – all of the escapism of hallucinogens, with zero of the implications.


An Oculus Rift development kit. 

Unsurprisingly, the potential for VR systems to be used in entertainment is huge. Well, enough to persuade Facebook to purchase Oculus VR for a cool $400m in cash, anyway. Yet is entertainment a limited prediction of the future for VR application?

In light of a ground-breaking initiative, it appears so. The United Nations have utilised the latest in VR technology to communicate the plight of the displaced persons due to the bloody Syrian conflict. In effect, the project has enabled the technology to become a powerful and exciting aggregator of socio-political change.

‘Clouds over Sidra’ is a project of award winning film-maker Chris Milk, and UN adviser Gabo Arora. The evocative film shadows a 12 year old girl called Sidra in Za’atari, a Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan. The film captures what would otherwise be an unimaginable reality – a young girl in a crowded camp of 84,000 refugees. The viewer is immersed in the journey of Sidra as she attends a make-shift school, trudges through the muddy camp, and as she tells the story of her family’s escape from persecution. The viewer isn’t seeing her on a screen, they are there beside her.

The impact of the film is made possible by the Samsung Gear VR 360-degree platform, a collaboration between Samsung and Oculus. The platform shoots film in all directions, and is able to be experienced through Virtual Reality headsets such as the Occulus Rift device, or a simple headset in conjunction with the VSRE app. For those of us without a VR headset lying around, the film is also available for regular viewing through the App.


A still from ‘Clouds over Sidra’.

Co-director Chris Milk describes the revolutionary system as an empathy machine. “We can change minds with this machine”, Milk attests in his TED talk. To put it to trial, the team took the film to the decision-makers at the World Economic Forum. “They were affected by it”, he reports.

The significance of this development lies in what it represents for the future of Virtual Reality, and in a broader sense, what Virtual Reality technologies can do to rekindle the once critical juncture between Arts and the socio-political arena. ‘Clouds over Sidra’ has launched an exciting and promising trajectory; one which marries the potential of VR technology with the world’s most pressing humanitarian issues.

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