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'Across The Line' is the latest example of VR attempting to evoke empathy.Alice Bonasio writes: There’s an iconic scene in Blade Runner where Harrison Ford’s character Deckard meets the replicant Rachel for the first time, but he doesn’t know she’s not human. He then uses a test called Voight-Kampff to determine whether or not she’s a real person. The test consists of a series of questions designed to elicit emotion. The idea – which is beautifully challenged later on in the film – is that machines are incapable of such empathetic responses. Empathy, in other words, is what makes us human. With an emerging consensus that the immersive nature of VR is particularly effective in triggering those empathetic responses, we’re seeing artists throughout the creative industries exploring new possibilities for storytelling – with a purpose. Chris Milk’s UN-Commissioned Clouds Over Sidra showed the plight of refugees through the eyes of a 12-year old Syrian girl, while the National Theatre’s Immersive Storytelling Studio production HOME/AAMIR transported viewers to the infamous Calais ‘Jungle’ camp. VR can even make people feel more empathetic toward more abstract things like the environment, as was recently shown with the Crystal Reef project – showcased this year at the Tribeca Film Festival by researchers from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford. The simulation, where you watched the devastating effects of ocean acidification caused by man, served to connect people to the consequences of their own actions in a much more tangible way. Nonny de la Peña – Co-Founder of the Emblematic Group and affectionately known as the “Godmother of VR” – has long explored the power of Virtual Reality experiences to break through viewer apathy. Her pioneering work often transports viewers into uncomfortable situations – such as a line for food handouts outside a shelter in LA, where you see a man collapsing from hunger next to you – and makes them re-think their outlook on often controversial issues. The latest of those projects is Across The Line, an experience which tells the story of a young woman going to an abortion clinic. I viewed it recently at London’s Raindance Film Festival – where it was selected for this year’s VR showcase Arcade – and spoke to la Peña and their partners at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) to find out more about how the project developed and what the reaction to it has been like so far.
Across the Line starts off with a 360 video of an examination room where you see a patient of the clinic being comforted by a clinician. The young woman sits quietly in the corner, but is visibly upset. After some coaxing from the doctor she tells her it’s because of what the protesters had been shouting at her as she made her way into the clinic. At that point, the doctor asks for permission to give her a hug, and you get a real sense of how helpless and vulnerable that person is feeling. As with most 360-degree video, your eyes tend to wander around the room sometimes, but mine is constantly drawn back to the lonely figure of this girl sitting on the examination table. Then as the she fidgets nervously my gaze is drawn to the two long red scars on the inside of her wrists. The unspoken story they tell is poignant. This being VR, I feel like I can almost reach out and touch those scars before the scene fades to black…(read more)
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