For years, we've been hearing about how virtual reality (VR) is going to change the world — for good and for evil. On the negative side, it's been predicted that people will get sucked into other realities and forget this on, or that they'll become obsessed with porn or fighting or whatever is shown within the VR mask. On the positive side ... well, there hasn't been much praise for the technology, though there have been inklings of using VR technology to push people to become more environmentally aware

virtual reality with woman in headsetProject Syria was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival. What was intended as a virtual reality experiment in empathy worked so well on participants that it became a must-try experience. According to the projects page, participants donned the VR headsets and experienced the following: "You are walking down a busy street in the Aleppo district of Syria. Children are playing, and vendors are peddling their wares. Suddenly, a rocket hits. Dust and debris scatter everywhere. Across the street, there is a child on the ground."

In reality, you are physically safe, but your mind (and heart, and emotions) gets a taste of what it's like to be under tack. Sound intense? Participants report that it is an intense experience — and it made them want to help. 

Journalist Nonny de la Pena and technologist Palmer Lucky (who had already produced another type of VR empathy game, called "Hunger in Los Angeles") worked together to create the experience. De la Pena sees Project Syria not as a game, but as a new form of journalism. She told Techcrunch: “Syria is so far away from most Americans. How do you attract a younger audience who might not pick up the newspaper to think about these important issues? That’s the point of all good journalism.”

Screenshot from Project Syria virtual reality experience

Screenshot from Project Syria's virtual reality experience.

This immersive experience is definitely not the same as reading a newspaper report, listening to the sounds of war on audio footage, or even seeing video on CNN. The idea is that you step inside the news event yourself — which requires a whole new level of attention and empathy, because it taps into your emotions directly. 

Chris Milk, a VR director, told Techcrunch that being immersed in news instead of watching it from afar is very different: “Here the viewer feels transported to that place. There’s no translation. They’re witnessing it first-hand themselves. There’s something about this format that touches a more emotional place in the mind and the soul.”

How could it not? I can't imagine how much easier it would be to convince someone of the importance of something if it was right there, surrounding them. And the stories you could tell! Imagine a dedicated meat-eater visiting a VR abattoir and seeing exactly how the meat is killed and processed at a factory farm, or a fast-fashionista experiencing the real-life conditions under which clothes are made? 

If the many people who purport not to care about various issues that do irreparable harm to animals, human beings and the environment came face-to-face with the reality of their inactions, I can't be the only one who thinks that many injustices would end — and pretty quickly. 

What do you think about using technology to get people to empathize with situations that would normally be far from their day-to-day lives? 

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Photo of woman wearing virtual reality headset: Barone Firenze/Shutterstock

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Want people to care about war? Put them in a war zone
New journalism endeavor uses virtual reality to increase empathy for real conflicts.