Most people think of video games when they think of virtual reality, but a burgeoning group of innovative filmmakers are producing narrative VR experiences with the unprecedented ability to affect us emotionally. This is why virtual reality is often referred to as an “empathy machine.”
This year, the Sundance Film Festival welcomed more than 30 VR experiences to its New Frontier program for emerging storytelling platforms. In 2015, there were only nine. VR’s tremendous growth is a testament to its impact. The ability to immerse someone into another person’s point of view isn’t just innovative, it’s a powerful tool to help enact real change. Take, for example, the gripping “Perspective; Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor.”
Created by filmmaker Rose Troche and virtual reality pioneer Morris May, this harrowing VR experience puts viewers in the shoes of two young, black men being apprehended by police, as well as the two white officers themselves. The entire experience consists of four five-minute videos that can be watched in any order. Each video not only represents a different point of view, but it also builds on the narrative, as new information is revealed, like whether the boy in question actually carried out the petty theft he’s accused of.
Unlike the tragic videos we see emerge online of police brutality, which have become all too common these days, “Perspective 2” is meant to start a dialogue.
“I live in New York, and there were protests happening and things that were occurring, and even since we’ve done this piece, there have been even more shootings,” Troche told MTV News. “It just doesn’t seem to be stopping. This piece is about progressing a dialogue because we seem to be at a standstill with this issue. It’s like you pick a side, and that’s the side you’re on, and no one steps out and says, ’Look. I think this is more complicated.'”
“So, this is just a small piece to have you experience this thing escalating rapidly from these different points of view, and perhaps in doing so, you feel like you can understand what it’s like to be that police officer or that young man, to act with bias and fear and aggression,” she added. “Ultimately, the hope for these pieces is that people talk about them.”
Last year, Troche and May brought “Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party” to Sundance, a similarly presented piece about campus sexual assault. What the “Perspective” series does is create a world in which seeing things from both sides isn’t just possible, it’s encouraged. It dissects the emotionally charged situation through the eyes of different characters, and puts the viewer right on the front lines.
In “Perspective 2,” a black teenager is shot by a white police office as his older brother looks on, helpless. When you’re seeing the situation escalate from the officer’s angle, you can follow his logic, however imperfect it may be, and that was Troche and May’s goal — to foster empathy.
People don’t usually have empathy for someone they see getting shot on TV or in a viral video, but when you’re actually placed in the first person point of view of a boy watching your own brother get shot right in front of you — that’s impactful. That’s the power of VR.
“There’s no other way to do this,” May said. “We watch people get shot on television all the time, and that means nothing to you. But if you really feel like you’re at that location, and you look over and you see your brother get shot by a police officer, that’s very powerful and it leaves an impact… There’s no other tool that let’s you be someone else, or let’s you experience something from someone else’s eyes.”
In order to do that, however, you need the right technology. Since virtual reality is growing so rapidly, oftentimes tech is outdated by the time it makes its debut at Sundance. So, for “The Misdemeanor,” May created his own innovative tech: 360-degree cameras that attach to each actor’s head. Then in post-production, the perspective was digitally lowered so the viewer sees the events at eye level. It makes for a more intimate, and frankly realistic, experience.
Having demoed the entire experience for myself, I can honestly say the provocative experience Troche and May have created is harrowing. When that office shoots, your world stops. Your vision gets hazy. You start to take shallow, shuddering breaths. You’re scared. Then, your perspective changes. Suddenly, you’re the cop who fired the gun. You’re panicking, and you don’t know what to do. So, you listen to your partner and you drag the kid’s inconsolable older brother away from the scene of the crime. He’s begging you to let him see his brother. “He’s just a kid!” he screams, looking you in the eyes. You feel a deep sense of regret. (It should be noted that the filmmakers left the fate of the kid up to the viewer. “Neither of us wanted to kill him,” Troche said. “We wanted to leave that open-ended.”)
Sound is also crucial when it comes to VR. In order to truly feel like you’re inside someone’s body, you need to hear your own breath, grunts and heartbeat. Troche and May used a Dolby Atmos mix to create directional sound that allows viewers to hear everything around them, which marks the first time this specific technology has been used in virtual reality. Of course, tackling powerful subjects in innovative new ways is very much the point of New Frontier.
“Perspective” is an important endeavor, not only for the advancement of VR as an immersive storytelling method, but also for its unique lens. VR gives the viewer a chance to experience something outside of the normative, and that’s invaluable for evoking change.