Piercing the Heart With Virtual Reality

Empathy is about seeing the world from someone else's perspective so as to share their feelings and this is where VR's strength lies. It can be a powerful empathy machine if you feel you're there, in someone else's... erm... eyes.

As a teenager in the early 90s I was spellbound by the film Lawnmower Man and the prospect of acquiring supernatural powers through the use, or rather misuse, of virtual reality (VR). With the media gripped by images of people wearing bizarre-looking headsets and gloves pawing pathetically at the empty air in front of them, VR was seen as an emerging technology which could transform life as we knew it.

Fast forward 20 years and we're only now starting to see VR having practical uses to improve our lives. Recent advancements in the quality and cost of VR have led to applications in education, training, immersive journalism pioneered by Nonny de la Peña, and healthcare such as trauma therapy and rehabilitation.

Lawnmower Man features a buoyant-haired Pierce Brosnan playing a sworn pacifist doctor bent on using VR to expand the horizons of the mind to further humanity. However, there is a conflict of interest with his shadowy government funders who themselves want to use VR to create an elite killing force of super-soldiers. History tells us that all technology can be used for good or abused for darker ends to oppress or to cause harm - 3D-printing being a recent example of a technology that can print medical implants like jaw bones, crania or ears, but can also run off an airport security-defying gun.

If you've never had a VR experience, then you're missing out. It can be enormously impressive. And VR is now affordable and accessible to a large number of people. All you need is the smartphone (you probably have) in your pocket and a cheap self-assembled cardboard VR viewer. It's even possible to create your own VR content using your smartphone and a free app which allows you to take spherical 360 photos.

At Amnesty we're interested in raising awareness, generating empathy and mobilising mass action to ensure that people around the world can access their rights. Dreadful human rights abuses are happening now, but they're not happening here. Most of us in the UK are lucky enough to have our human rights largely respected and kept intact, but we also take them for granted. So the challenge is: how do we generate empathy and action for people who we don't know and who are suffering human rights abuses either in closed, distant countries or behind barred gates and cell doors? We can't take people on a field trip to a war zone or a torture cell, but we can do the next best thing - take them there virtually.

Empathy is about seeing the world from someone else's perspective so as to share their feelings and this is where VR's strength lies. It can be a powerful empathy machine if you feel you're there, in someone else's... erm... eyes. We've been equipping our volunteers, school-speakers and street fundraisers with low-cost VR viewers loaded with powerful, 360-degree photos of war-torn Aleppo in Syria. The images are taken by local Syrian human rights activists, known as Lamba Media Productions, and show districts in Aleppo shortly after they were devastated by barrel bombs dropped on civilians by Syrian government helicopters. These crude but deadly weapons are oil barrels, fuel tanks or gas cylinders packed with explosives, fuel and metal fragments designed to kill and maim in an indiscriminate fashion. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad denies that his forces even use these munitions but with VR we're able to show the public clear evidence of their use. We are able to virtually transport people from the calm streets of the UK to the rubble-strewn roads and squares of Aleppo, and we can help show people what it's like for the families who still live there.

The response to VR has exceeded our expectations, we've seen people moved to tears and there's been a significant increase in support for our campaign to protect people in Syria. It's early days, but we're also exploring how we can use VR as a remote research tool and as an educational tool as part of our human rights education programme working with schools, colleges and universities.

Just as it took the image of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi to shake people out of their apathy over the European and Middle East refugee crisis, so VR can jolt people into empathising with the wretched of the earth. It may be a weird piece of Tomorrow's World-like tech, but VR can pierce the human heart.

It's a long way from Lawnmower Man to the bombed streets of Aleppo. But virtual reality takes you there.


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