The International Data Corporation estimates that the augmented- and virtual-reality market, valued at $5.2 billion in 2016, will grow to $162 billion by 2020. Just in the past year, VR found new applications in professional training, commerce, patient recovery, and childbirth.
But a whole new area of adoption is also underway. Social justice and policy advocates are beginning to use VR as a tool for persuading legislative change. New content studios advertise missions to “harness the power of virtual reality and leverage it for social good.” Nonprofits captivate donors with immersive documentaries about their gifts’ impact. And earlier this year, HTC Vive committed $10 million to a new program, VR for Impact, that will fund projects aimed at advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
In the summer of 2013, journalist and entrepreneur Jamie Wong had also begun experimenting with virtual reality when she was invited to a hackathon as one of 100 technology influencers. There, she found herself on a team with CNN political commentator Van Jones, and the two hit it off.
“His background is in politics and social justice, and mine is in media and social justice,” says Wong, who has worked as a producer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, ABC News, and other major outlets. Jones and Wong began to look for ways to continue to collaborate, and then one day, “it suddenly just dawned on us. I was talking about VR and its potential for creating empathy, and he was talking about the empathy gap.” They pulled together a pitch and secured funding from Google. By fall of 2015, Project Empathy was born.
For their first VR series, Project Empathy partnered with Jones’s #cut50 initiative, which aims to halve mass incarceration in the US. “I think we would be hard pressed to find a place where the empathy gap is larger than when it comes to incarceration in the United States,” says Wong, who is now the executive producer of the project.
The group has thus far completed two films and is working on a third. The first experience, directed by Wong, captures New York Times’ bestselling author Shaka Senghor’s incarceration story and plunges viewers directly into solitary confinement. When Wong released the four-minute piece at the Democratic National Convention, 85% of the several hundred people who screened it said that it changed their opinion on criminal justice. The second evokes the pain of losing a mother to the prison system through the eyes of nine-year-old girl, sending the viewer from playground to foster home in a few fleeting moments.
Project Empathy brings VR experiences directly into the hands of legislators with the hopes of facilitating policy change. What makes Project Empathy’s approach unique is their focus on bringing VR experiences directly into the hands of legislators with the hopes of facilitating policy change. After initial screenings of the incarceration film with a few federal legislators proved successful, the team decided to push the idea further. “The bulk of the people who are incarcerated in this country are actually incarcerated in state prisons,” says Jessica Jackson, #cut50’s national director. They figured that if VR was getting through to federal legislators, they should also bring it to the state legislators who can make the most real-life impact on prisoners’ lives.
On March 1, in a culmination of over a year of planning, the partnership brought virtual-reality headsets loaded with Senghor’s solitary confinement experience to legislators in 35 states. “These state legislators are the true decision makers and gatekeepers to legislative change that will directly impact people’s lives in the most immediate manifest way,” Wong says. In California alone, over 500 legislators attended the in-person event and took home Google Cardboards to continue sharing the experience with the rest of their networks. “The content produced powerful emotions,” says Julie Mai, #cut50’s program coordinator. “Viewers commonly described the experience as unlike anything they had ever seen, heartbreaking, but also inspiring.” Moving forward, the partnership plans to hold another Day of Action in 2018.
VR’s ability to evoke empathy—and inspire tangible outcomes—is currently being researched in labs around the world. “In order for policymakers to really understand what they’re deciding on, I think virtual simulations will be a really great way to highlight the issues,” says Grace Ahn, a professor of communication and advertising at the University of Georgia, who studies the impact of VR on decision making. Her current research shows that using VR to see the world through another person’s eyes often has more persuasive effects than simply imagining the other person’s perspective. But whether these effects last over time still requires further research.
Wong clarifies that Project Empathy doesn’t expect to immediately transform legislation; the team knows that will take time. Instead, they see their work as a conversation starter about VR’s capacity for social change. “Is this actually changing minds, is this actually helping the world?” Wong postulates. “We are the first to ask these questions when it comes to political action and virtual reality.”
Wong is deeply optimistic about the future of VR for real political change. “We not only [want] to introduce to the public using VR for good and for political action and activism, but also to create a concrete opportunity for empirical discovery and understanding,” she says. VR is no longer only the realm of entertainment and live-action role playing—it might do some good for others, too.