Is the latest virtual reality just advertising dressed up as empathy?

By Gillian Terzis.

Virtual and augmented reality at SXSW

Attendees wearing virtual reality headsets at the 2016 SXSW Interactive Festival, in Austin, Texas.
Credit: David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

The first time I experienced virtual reality, I felt a frisson of excitement – the kind that occurs when the distinction between reality and fantasy has disintegrated. I knew the objects that materialised in front of my eyes weren’t real, but still I wondered: what am I seeing? It brought to mind the work of scholar Donna Haraway, who observed in “The Cyborg Manifesto” that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion”. As I reflected on my time at SXSW Interactive, the technology-focused segment of Austin’s South by Southwest festival, I turned to this quote often. Over time, attempts to distinguish between organism and machine have proved increasingly futile because we are all cyborgs now, inhabiting a world where nature and artifice clash and coalesce in ways that forcefully reconfigure our conception of the world and our place in it.

At SXSW people often remarked that the festival wasn’t what it used to be. Ten years ago, it was primarily concerned with culture, mostly music and films. It was also much cheaper to attend – this year, admission for the tech conference alone cost $1295. Thirty years after its inception, it has become a crucial part of Austin’s economy, with last year’s event contributing $US317.2 million. In some ways its upheaval is similar to Burning Man: both are awash with cash and techies, which blunt the countercultural edge either festival might once have had. At SXSW it was impossible to ignore the reams of sponsorship from start-ups and corporations alike. Gigs were brought to you by Bud Light and Spotify. Parties were brought to you by Deloitte. Saatchi & Saatchi were giving out free battery chargers. Each day bestowed more swag. The constant hustling might sound like indignity after indignity inflicted on the soul, and it probably was. On the plus side, one could spend the entirety of the festival stumbling from open bar to open bar and most people did exactly this, as companies jostled for the attention of people who might and might not have been influencers.

This year, immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented reality featured prominently, with companies across a range of industries – gaming, media, music, food, telcos – showing off their wares. At the Qualcomm Invisible Museum visitors were handed a tablet that, when used to scan the museum’s exhibits, offered “insights” into how our homes and cities might be transformed by various technological innovations. Countless references were made to “smart” technologies – a light that turns on when you enter your house, a lock that requires fingerprints rather than a key to open. The “Internet of Things”, a phrase that seems sinister in its banality, is used to mark a new era of connectivity, where our interactions with technology are seamless rather than intrusive – or perhaps an era where we acquiesce to these intrusions with less resistance. Whatever the case, the exhibition was little more than an augmented reality corporate advertisement for the semiconductor manufacturer. Its provocations were presented as inevitabilities; upon closer reading it was apparent these predictions were thinly veiled existential threats. One dialogue box asked: “When will your camera tag your photo for you?” Another went straight for the jugular: “When will our devices become better extensions of ourselves?”

The idea that technology can augment our lives is not an uncommon assertion. Similar arguments are being made about the capacity of virtual reality (VR) and immersive technologies to make us better humans. At a TED conference last year, Chris Milk told audiences about Clouds Over Sidra, a film he made about a 12-year-old Syrian girl who lives in a refugee camp in Jordan. It is part of a series jointly produced by Milk’s VR company Vrse and the United Nations, and is viewable on The New York Times’ VR app. “You’ll notice you see full 360 degrees, in all directions,” Milk told an eager audience. “And when you’re sitting there in her room, watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her.” VR’s literal expansion of our vision – enabling us to view an experience from all angles and perspectives – is seen by Milk and others as a potentially humanising force. In their eyes, the click-happy, sensational nature of the 24-hour news cycle does little to boost understanding of, say, Europe’s migration crisis. An immersive VR experience, on the other hand, could elevate the human experience above what the web usually demands from publications: socially optimised, data-driven content.

Given the discursive nature of social media, this is a noble aim. Yet there’s something overly literal about this approach, as if all it takes to be an empathic human – to see the world from someone else’s perspective – is to strap on a headset and peer through the lens. It’s a programmatic conception of how emotions are calibrated and how we come to interpret and empathise with the experiences of others. The affinities VR nurtures are elective: its appeal so far has been niche. But a more insidious problem lurks beneath the naked technological solutionism. Paranoiacs might suggest, and not without reason, that our emotions could be used against us, manipulated in service of metrics such as growth or advertising revenue. It wouldn’t be for the first time.

At SXSW, McDonald’s showcased its foray into VR, which was gimmicky, to be sure. Users could decorate the interior of a Happy Meal box with paint and lasers and share their designs on social media. It was a fun but unsubtle advertisement for McDonald’s and HTC, the manufacturer of the headset. Where some may see an avenue for empathy, marketers see dollar signs. It’s true that advertising has weaselled its way from the spaces between newspaper columns into the stories, where it is known as “native content”, as well as into our social media newsfeeds and our inboxes, but immersive advertising is harder to unsee.

Chatter about VR at the festival revealed the entangled desires for authenticity and, to some degree, commodification. This was highlighted in a discussion on a panel hosted by The New York Times, which featured Jenna Pirog, the paper’s VR editor (possibly a world first), and prominent filmmaker/music video director Lance Bangs. A man in the audience asked whether VR content should be considered films or “experiences”; it was difficult to discern whether his question concerned matters of semantics or marketing.

Nonetheless, trialling these VR “experiences” made me shelve some of my scepticism. I felt like how a baby presumably feels when she catches her reflection in the mirror for the first time. This was especially the case when I wore a headset: I grasped and clutched at air, wanting to touch everything. I found myself ensorcelled by virtual dinosaurs and felt like a fly on the wall during soul group The Internet’s recording session. I was engrossed in the stories people told of trauma – civil war, forced migration – which I watched on a smartphone shoved into Google Cardboard, a foldout viewer that functioned as a pair of VR binoculars. As moving as these narratives were, I wondered whether they stoked our hopes to change the world, or if they pandered to our self-regard, constantly in need of affirmation of our highly evolved, empathic nature.

In the many corporate VR exhibits at SXSW there was a similar scene: throngs of people flailing and waving their arms, transfixed by a virtual world that seemed more enticing than the real thing. It’s true that imposed solitude induces an emotional experience. When you’re wearing a headset or watching through a lo-fi cardboard viewer, it’s just you, the video and the people in it. The world’s endless parade of peripheral distractions – the person by your side, the sounds and smells around you – dissolve as you succumb to hyperreality. It’s also literally dizzying. The nausea and headaches I experienced are a common affliction. “Simulator sickness”, similar to motion sickness, is said to arise from the mixed signals from the disconnect between the information the brain is receiving and what the body is physically experiencing.

Witnessing technology in action can feel like a conversion experience. Even the most simple acts, such as ordering food from Menulog, summon utopian impulses. The future, shiny on the surface, is in our hands. In the case of virtual reality, we can visualise it. But I wonder what we’re really looking at: is it a vision of utopia, or an idealised version of a better self? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It’s only human to indulge in our illusions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "Immersion therapy".

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Gillian Terzis is a San Francisco-based writer.