Investigating reflexivity in virtual reality beyond empathy

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

This practice-based research explores the reflexive dimensions of cinematic virtual reality (VR) within intersubjective contexts. This presupposes that self is an intertwined and socially connected being. Many artists and filmmakers are embracing VR as a creative medium, attracted to the ways that cinematic VR can, for example, elicit emotional engagement and empathetic identification. However, this carries the potential risk of uncritical acceptance or witnessing another’s pain without self-critical awareness. 

While the reflexive dimensions of cinema and new media art have developed through, for example, Brechtian estrangement effects and avant-garde filmmaking techniques, the reflexivity of cinematic VR is yet to be understood sufficiently. Because VR is fundamentally an immersive medium, investigating reflexivity in VR carries the possibility of breaking that immersion. I argue that the VR experience is fundamentally reflexive in nature due to the limitations of immersive engagement, which derives from the technical limitations of the medium and the duality of virtual embodiment. Artists and creators can employ these constraints as estrangement effects that encourage the audience to actively “fill in the gaps” between their physical sensations and virtual perceptions. 

Trailer for Anonymous
Trailer for Floating Walk - Gangnam Kangaroo
Trailer for Sleeping Eyes

Through conceptual and practical explorations of VR storytelling, this research develops new cinematic practices applied to VR and expands the contextual understanding of reflexivity and empathy. My practice-based research developed three cinematic VR projects: Floating Walk (360degree video), Anonymous (interactive mobile VR) and Sleeping Eyes (interactive navigable VR). Each creative work applies reflexive elements in qualitatively different ways, exploring the potential of cinematic VR for eliciting embodied reflection. The projects are responses to both personal and societal alienation, disconnection and isolation: sociocultural issues that prompt the audience to engage in self-reflection and to consider how they connect with others. More specifically, my VR projects consider issues of immigrant identity (Floating Walk), the no-relationship society (Anonymous), narcolepsy and social ignorance (Sleeping Eyes).

Each artwork plays in different ways on the media constraints of VR technology as a cinematic medium by exploring different methods of storytelling, interaction and aesthetic techniques, in an effort to advance the language of this new medium. A diverse and multilayered exploration provides in-depth knowledge about which design factors and techniques can be used as reflexive modes of VR storytelling while considering various technical, cinematic and narrative elements. Furthermore, the theoretical and practical explorations of reflexivity in VR contribute to knowledge regarding the fundamental relationships between self-reflection and empathetic understanding of others, and to philosophical discourses regarding the limits and potential in understanding others.

Overview of Sleeping Eyes with commentary
Trailer for CHI'20: ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems with commentary on Anonymous VR

Exhibitions and Screenings

Sleeping Eyes, Tin Sheds Gallery (TEI 2020 Art Track), Sydney, Australia, Feb 2020
Anonymous, Tbilisi International Animation Festival 2019, Tbilisi, Georgia, Nov 2019
Anonymous, Torino Short Film Market 2019, Torino, Italy, Nov 2019
Anonymous, Bucheon International Animation Festival 2019, Bucheon, Korea, Oct 2019
Floating Walk, Social Impact Media Award Finalist, Los Angeles, USA, 2018
Floating Walk, Melbourne Fringe Festival, Melbourne, Australia, Sep – Oct 2017
Floating Walk, SensiLab Virtual Cinema, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, Nov 2017