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Virtual Reality Can Make You Feel. Can It Also Make You Think?

The answer has important implications for journalism, documentaries and academic research.

Wesley VanDinter, iStock / composite image by Re/code

There’s a moment in the virtual reality movie “Zero Point” that everyone who has seen it talks about. You see a group of bison walking through a field, and — what’s that sound? — you turn to your left and one of the beasts is right there, in your face.

Some people feel afraid. I flinched, and then laughed. Everyone talks about it because it feels real.

The more I hear about and try non-entertainment virtual reality experiences, though, the more it seems “feeling” might just be step one. From academia to cinema to journalism, proponents of the technology are starting to figure out what else VR can do to our brains.

“It’s one thing when you describe something, and another outcome when you experience it,” said Matthew Cooke, the director of the upcoming documentary, “The Survivor’s Guide to Prison.” As a companion to the main film, Cooke worked with Ryot Creative to make a solitary confinement simulator:

“Experiencing that really brings the horror home,” Cooke said. As with his main film, he hopes viewers of “Confinement” — for now, he acknowledges, largely VR enthusiasts who he hopes will spread the word — will walk away thinking about the ways in which the U.S. prison system may be mistreating its inmates, and the dehumanizing effect punishment like total social isolation would have on someone.

He’s not the only one thinking VR will be effective at that.

“When I’m making these VR pieces, I’m trying to educate a population that may not read the newspaper, to [help them] be informed about their world,” said Emblematic Group CEO Nonny de la Peña.

Emblematic’s latest project reconstructs the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, piecing together a digital reconstruction of the gated community where Martin died with the audio of real 911 calls made on the night of the shooting. The Trayvon experience, called “One Dark Night,” puts the user in a digital CGI environment, as did its predecessor, “Project Syria,” which shows users what it’s like to be a civilian bystander when a car bomb goes off.

Stanford University visiting professor Geri Migielicz (who, full disclosure, I took a video journalism class with in 2011) said she looked forward to seeing more live-action documentary and journalism projects because her brain could less easily reject those as unreal.

De la Peña countered that filming live action in VR requires a deliberately placed camera, which might only work for situations where something is already happening, or is known to be happening soon. It’s also considered bad form to move a virtual reality camera when the user is not controlling it or moving his or her own body, because that can trigger motion sickness.

But she agreed that news delivered in panoramic live video will be a powerful use case for the technology.

“Two years from now, I guarantee you’ll be standing in the middle of the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath, instead of watching it on TV,” de la Peña said.

One of the big questions, said Migielicz — who is looking into how VR might complement her upcoming film “The Cannon and the Flower” — is how long people will want to be in these immersive settings, especially troubling or traumatic ones.

“If you’re in a firefight in Afghanistan, do you really want to be in there for an hour and a half?” she said. Rather, “short doses” might be the answer for experiencing “a moment in time that you can’t experience now.”

Condition One CTO Jay Brown said the company’s future video projects will focus more on stringing together several such short experiences, like the famous bison, rather than narratives, which “Zero Point” had some of. But he politely challenged my thinking that merely being a fly on the wall can’t lead to changes in how users think.

“If my mom were here, she’d say that if you can make people feel empathy, they’ll start to think,” Brown said.

Some of the most powerful potential uses for VR are being studied at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where faculty and students are testing things like whether mimicking the act of cutting down a tree in VR makes participants want to use less paper (it does, they say). Other studies have put white male participants into the body of a woman of color, who is then discriminated against by a virtual prejudiced man, or young people in the body of a 60-something man, so that they might not be ageist if they ever are interviewing someone older than they are for a job — which is a very real possibility at Stanford.

Some of the most interesting research, as described by lab manager Shawnee Baughman when I visited the lab this week, put some participants in a virtual helicopter flying aimlessly over a city, while others were asked to fly over the same city as a superhero, trying to deliver medicine to a diabetic child. When Baughman “accidentally” spilled her pens after the study was “over,” the superheroes were more likely to help her pick up, and picked up more.

The upshot of all this? Yes, the right virtual reality experiences may have the power to affect both our feeling and our thinking. The next question, as with video games that aim to change their players, is whether the users will want to be the bystanders, or the heroes.

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