Is VR the appropriate way to engage sympathy for child refugees or are child refugees the appropriate content to expand the market for VR?
This Sunday (11/08/15) the NY Times Magazine offered a set of VR films on child refugees, describing this technical innovation as equivalent to the first still photographs in the paper in 1896. This landmark release builds upon an earlier film from the same studio, about a 12 year old Syrian refugee in Jordan. Clouds Over Sidra, which was sponsored by the UN and shown to the elite attendees of the World Economic Forum in Davos (as shown in the image at the top of this post, taken from producer Chris Milk’s TED Talk about the film called “VR as the Ultimate Empathy Machine”). Although I am a believer in the power of computational representation to expand our understanding and empathy I find the claims for these films uncomfortably inflated.
The New York Times Magazine stories are also presented in text and conventional video and are worth reading and viewing. For the VR versions the Times provided subscribers with the Google cardboard viewer.
The Displaced: Chuol’s Story a 9-year old boy from a war zone in South Sudan living in a swamp with his grandmother
The Displaced: Hana’s Story a 12 year old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp in Lebanon
The Displaced: Oleg’s Story a 11 year old living in rubble in eastern Ukraine
All these stories are contextualized with information about the historical context and the size of the problem, and they are shot with amazing clarity in what must have been very difficult circumstances. But it is hard to credit the argument that the VR presentation offers the opportunity for deeper empathy, since the interface is so distracting. It is not just the novelty of the 360 degree view that focuses us on the interface instead of the content. It is the awkwardness of the interface and the absence of a VR film language. These early films reveal the need for organizing conventions to orient the viewer and foreground the key details.. Here is a partial list of issues that will have to be addressed by clearer thinking about interaction design:
- Viewers need to be in a swivel chair to easily take advantage of the 360 degree view. There is no other comfortable way to experience a scene that continues behind your back.
- If the selling point is that one can turn one’s head to see the whole area, then the films should offer a reason to move from one point of view to another, and sound cues or other attractors to lure viewers to switch points of view at appropriate times. An enormous frame is not an asset if it does not contain action worth checking out, and if the viewer is always in danger of missing the interesting stuff happening elsewhere.
- Subtitles for the non-English narration and dialog should not be displayed in a separate space from the speaker, and viewers should not have to hunt for them through the space, disconnecting from the setting and the people.
- Introductory paragraphs of text should be sized for the VR frame so that they are readable through the goggles. But it would be better to avoid them entirely since it is annoying to read through VR goggles.
- VR stories should take place in a single location and avoid voice over. The point of VR is presence, and scene cuts and voice-over creates dissociation, taking us out of the particular moment and the particular location.
One moment that works well: In the short teaser “Food Drop” the viewer is positioned next to a bundle of air-dropped food that the child Chuol approaches and then calls for a grownup to lift onto his slender shoulders so he can carry it back to his family. This is a very poignant moment because it focuses us on a particular action seen at an intimate distance, and because the action captures so much about the refugee situation: the massive air drop organized by impersonal forces, the uncertainty of day to day necessities of life, the involvement of children in the struggle for survival causing them to bear too heavy burdens, the resiliency of human beings in extreme situations. For a moment we disappear into the 3D virtual space in the same way that we take for granted in a 2D film.