Investigating empathy in virtual reality

Practice-based PhD research exploring reflexive storytelling for critical empathy in cinematic virtual reality

Many artists and filmmakers have become increasingly interested in using virtual reality (VR) as a creative medium for evoking empathy. However, the complexity of the empathic process in reflexive contexts has not been considered sufficiently. Current cinematic VR is focused on creating an immersive illusion to induce a sense of presence or embodied experience rather than eliciting reflection. Although VR technologies have been developing rapidly, there are obvious gaps between physical reality and VR in terms of embodiment and bodily presence. Those gaps do not necessarily need to be erased to create immersive illusions; rather, they can be used effectively as a new method of storytelling and as aesthetic techniques for promoting self and social reflection.

This practice-based PhD research aims to develop cinematic VR as a reflexive device for exploring critical empathy. Having developed a conceptual framework based on existing literature, and undertaken a theoretical analysis, three cinematic VR projects using different levels of interaction and immersion are being developed in order to better understand storytelling for critical empathy. All the projects will address issues of alienation, disconnection, and loneliness, which can lead to reflexive understandings of critical empathy within social contexts. They have and will be influenced by field research to deepen personal understanding of critical empathy and to provide background to the research practice.

Trailer for Floating Walk - Gangnam Kangaroo
Trailer for Anonymous

Two of the three works have been completed. The first, Floating Walk – Gangnam Kangaroo, is a 360° cinematic essay about Sojung as a young Korean woman living in Australia that uses low-level immersive and interactive technology. The second work, Anonymous, introduces an old man who lives alone in a small room. It uses real-time 3D graphics combined with gaze interaction. The third project, currently in pre-production, will be explore issues around narcolepsy and social perception using a navigable, immersive environment with gesture-based interaction. It will be made in collaboration with a Korean artist who lives with narcolepsy.

The practical exploration of the creation of a new method of immersive storytelling could add substantive insight to understanding cinematic VR, which can be seen as a reflexive device as well as a sociocultural tool for critical empathy. The research is currently ongoing.

Project members

Sojung Bahng
Jon McCormack (supervisor)
Vince Dziekan (supervisor)

 

Outcomes

Floating Walk – Gangnam Kangaroo was selected as a finalist for a Social Impact Media Award in 2018

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