How VR—and Marvel Superheroes—Might Elicit Empathy

Virtual reality has long been positioned as a technological tool for bridging ideological chasms. If you can live inside somebody else’s skin and see things as they do, proponents say, you might more clearly understand that person’s view of the world.

A group of filmmakers—along with some marquee stars from Marvel‘s superhero films—have turned to VR in a new attempt to evoke these kinds of empathetic reactions from across society’s dividing lines. After slipping on a VR headset and dropping into a scene of a Black man getting pulled over and interrogated by the police, you might better empathize with those who are policed more forcefully than you. After watching up close as a woman is sexually harassed in her place of work, you might gain more understanding of the power imbalance between genders.

Though there are only two episodes so far, the series—called The Messy Truth: The VR Experience—has been nominated for an Emmy for outstanding original interactive program. It’s a project helmed by Magic Labs Media founder, CNN contributor, and former Obama administration advisor Van Jones. The project caught the attention of Brie Larson, the social activist and actor in movies such as Room and Captain Marvel, who appears in one of the episodes.

Jones, Larson, and VR director Elijah Allan-Blitz spoke with WIRED senior editor Angela Watercutter at the WIRED25 virtual conference, which began today. Their project takes its title from Jones’ 2017 book Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together. Both were inspired by the aftermath of the 2016 election.

“I am a part of an industry that some people say is tearing the country apart,” Jones said. “Mainstream media, so-called corporate media, some people say that the business model is making it more profitable to divide people than to bring people together. I don’t want to believe that’s true, but I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can to use technology for good.”

The goal of Messy Truth is to immerse viewers in situations where they normally would not find themselves because of their gender, their race, or where they live. The first episode aims to impart onto viewers the fraught tension during an interaction between a Black man and a police officer. In the second episode, Larson plays a role in a scene that focuses on a woman being sexually harassed.


illustration with words the WIRED 25
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“What we’re talking about is trying to put someone in someone else’s shoes,” Larson says. “One place this really excels is dealing with power imbalance, because it’s an experience that’s very hard to have if your body limits you and you’ve never been in that experience before.”

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 viewers situations that are ordinary and common for others, but foreign to them. 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.