Virtual Reality Is A Heart Tool

Project Empathy Heart.jpg

By Lori Kozlowski

In this life, there are many different forms of heartbreak. What is impossible to know is how life unfolds in someone else’s shoes. How they felt going through a particular situation. How they got into the situation in the first place. What led them there. What was confusing. What was hard. What was accidental. What hurt them. Their second thoughts. Their sweating palms. The way their heart beat.

I’ve never been to prison. Or jail. So when I embarked on a virtual reality series production about the U.S. prison system in 2016, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Joining Project Empathy as the producer was an exciting prospect: It was my favorite kind of creation — making something out of nothing, using both art and cutting edge technology to tell a good and important story. Hopefully stories that would reveal truths about our world. They were crucial stories that would amplify voices that don't get heard.

The project also hit on one of U.S.’s most pressing social justice issues: Mass incarceration in America and problems within the U.S. prison system.

Project Empathy was comprised of four virtual reality experiences, each examining the prison system and its affects from different angles. The project was sponsored by Google and allowed us to pull together journalists, technologists, and directors in Hollywood who cared about the subject matter and the goal.

The work was enticing and provocative. But beyond the outer gloss of a compelling project, it was the inner work that reshaped my way of seeing.

Before Project Empathy, I knew what I knew about prisons from films and books. But no amount of reading could make me know someone else’s pain of losing a parent, a spouse, or one’s own life to prison. And what that really means.

VR brought me that much closer to stepping into someone else’s world. To knowing the difference between thinking about facts and feeling someone’s experience.

To know someone’s story is one thing. But to feel someone’s story is another.

What Virtual Reality Is
Virtual reality is all about changing perceptions — quite literally. When you put on a VR headset, you enter a different world. Due to what feels like complete immersion, VR experiences can take you anywhere and make you feel like you are really there.

VR can send you to rural Ireland, to deep space, into an abyss, to a refugee camp, or to jail.

It’s difficult not to stay focused. You are immersed — your eyes, your ears. And even though the world you’re entering is often made up (by content creators) — you feel like it is real. If you’re on the edge of a building, it really feels like you could fall off. If you are underwater, it really feels like the sharks that swim by could bite you. If you are in a slaughterhouse as a cow, headed for the chopping block, you might actually feel very sorry for yourself.

For me, I was able to see what solitary confinement was like. I was able to see what it is like to watch a parent get arrested and go to jail. Entering into these worlds was emotionally jarring, but it helped me to gain a greater understanding of justice, what feels fair, what feels unfair, what seems uncomfortable, and what seems wrong.

How It Made Me Feel + How It Changed Me
If I hadn’t had these VR experiences and the chance to make them, I wouldn’t see the world and the issues before us as I do now.

This was deeper than coping with a societal problem. It was learning it. It was knowing it. It was being.

Before embarking on this work, I was likely already an empathetic person. Journalists know how to listen. Writers know how to use language that can move a reader.

But entering into VR took me closer and further into the truth.

I spent more than a year interviewing formerly incarcerated people and getting to know their stories. Most people that I interviewed spent a significant amount of their lives behind bars (i.e. in some cases 15 years, in some cases 25, in other cases 30 years or more).

I was deeply humbled by their grace and gratefulness toward some of American life’s more simple things — going for a walk in fresh air, choosing a particular kind of coffee at any time of day to drink it, reading anything you want. These small freedoms, though seemingly tiny to some, were life-affirming for many that I spoke to.

I also learned the intimate details of how harsh prison life can be. What it feels like to lose your mom, what you can and can’t do in a cell, what solitary confinement feels like after year three. What the first day of maximum security prison feels like — how scared someone might be, even though they've never talked about it before.

We translated all of the real-life stories onto screen in VR, so audience members could walk around in as close-to-real-life experiences as possible.

I had not known what it was like to grow up without a father, due to an arrest. I didn’t know the regret some people feel about losing their families and the complications that incarceration can cause — the economic struggle (with the lack of a breadwinner, many children are left to foster care or in financially vulnerable positions with no one to care for them, which statistically leads to life-long economic struggle). I didn’t know what it was like to lose a son.

I didn’t know the the depth of the sadness. It was bigger than I ever could have imagined.

Much of American society thinks of crime as boiling down to "bad guys" and "good guys." We hear the phrase "don’t-do-the crime-if-you-can’t-do-the-time" and other basic ideas of what it means to be lawful or unlawful.

Yet our criminal justice system and U.S. prisons can be so much more complicated than that. And it is in this VR medium that I gained a greater understanding of just how complicated, humbling, and harrowing it can be.

I began to question justice. And how we can do better for more Americans. How the country can be more just and more free — by being more fair and more heart-centered.

I thought a lot about how most of the time we don’t expect our government or the law to act from the heart. But perhaps 21st century leadership demands that: A compassion for others, even if they aren’t like you.

I suppose I felt that way because in a VR experience, you can’t help but wonder: What if this was me?

That in fact, was part of the whole purpose of the project: To take you there. To make you feel something.

What VR Could Do In The Future + 21st Century Problem-Solving
VR taught me a lot about what I didn’t know. It debunked a lot of assumptions I had. And it created a space where I could seemingly live out moments that have never occurred in my own life.

I was given the power to feel someone else’s feelings. And that alone can change you.

Just as paintings were a precursor to photographs, and photos were the still life images that eventually led us to film and video, new mediums come into being now and again.  Virtual reality is not just film, but an entirely new medium with which to view the world.

As national and global issues become ever-more complicated, we’ll need more and more to try to see things from another perspective.

Poverty, victims recovering from earthquakes and other natural disasters, refugees seeking a new home, the prison system, homelessness. Very few of us will walk all of these roads. But through VR, we can start to understand how these various experiences really affect other people.

If our global problems are becoming more complicated and sophisticated, so too should our way of dealing with them. Never before has the merger of art and tech led us to a scientifically proven way to shift minds (and hearts).

One step beyond coping with a problem is understanding it, and a step beyond understanding it is empathy. And it’s in that empathy zone that we can begin to know someone else’s struggle.

As we are in a politically dubious time, we are challenged now more than ever to not only think about how to solve problems, but to employ empathy, not just as a nice-to-have tool, but as a necessity for understanding others. To make us want to act to heal communities. And to get to the root of problems versus accepting things as they are. To make us want to do and be better.

VR can spur us out of our comfort zones, lead us into a world we don’t know, allow us to walk around in someone else’s skin, and perhaps become more human.


**Project Empathy was sponsored by Google. For more information on Project Empathy and the impacts of mass incarceration, visit: Project Empathy VR.