How VR—and Marvel Superheroes—Might Elicit Empathy

Each episode is short, around three and a half minutes. There’s no over-the-top character acting or ham-fisted moralizing in the scenes. The whole point is to show situations that are ordinary and common for others but foreign to the viewer. Part of the technology includes advanced hand-tracking software that helps to make the user feel more connected to the scene.

“This is a social experiment,” Allan-Blitz said. “We’re trying to see if we can use this new medium of VR to actually put you in the shoes of someone else, where you look down and you’re fully embodied in these different experiences, and to really see if this can be the ultimate empathy machine.”

While the first two episodes might focus on causes championed by those with a more liberal ideology, the creators said they don’t intend on it being a partisan experience. Jones said he wants to shoot more scenes that evoke empathy for everyone across the political spectrum.

“Neither political party, from my point of view, does enough to help the addicted, the afflicted, and convicted,” Jones said.

The first episode features Winston Duke (Us, Black Panther) as a driver who gets pulled over and unfairly accosted by police. The viewer is put in the role of his child who is riding in the passenger seat.

The decision to specifically cast Marvel actors was deliberate, Jones said. Other Marvel stars like Josh Brolin and Zoe Saldana have also expressed interest in participating.

“I was a Marvel comics geek when it was not cool,” Jones said. “Stan Lee’s vision of people having a lot of power, a lot of responsibility, sticking up for the underdog, not giving up, not becoming what you’re fighting. All that stuff went into me very deep as a kid.”

For now, there are only two episodes, though Jones and Allan-Blitz plan to make more. Before Covid-19, they took the experience to the public, including a showcase at the Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this year. While the pandemic has made that sort of outreach less feasible, the team does plan to bring the experience to places where episodes can be viewed by conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between.

“There are infinite stories to tell.” Larson said. “As many people as there are on the planet, everybody has a story, everybody has a moment that should be shared and experienced. And so we’re excited to collect more and do more.”

Future WIRED25 sessions will take place on Wednesdays for the next two weeks. You can find the full agenda here. Stream the conference live here.

Portrait by Jesse Grant/Getty Images.


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