If virtual reality is the empathy machine, then SXSW 2024 was the empathy festival.

It would not have taken someone as long as it did to get through the snaking queue for the XR Experience floor to have arrived at the same conclusion.

Once inside, and the doors to the showroom closed softly behind me, the din of feverishly networking festival goers quickly receded into the background and I ventured into the totality-esque hall.

I wasn’t about to take off a pair of eclipse glasses to arrive in a new reality, I was about to put one on.

I would spend most of the next few days exploring the exhibits in this one small but meaningful corner of SXSW. The exhibits presented by the ASU MIX Center and Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts had been curated more from a storytelling and impact perspective, and this distinction is noteworthy. From sitting down “face to face” with young creatives in Lebanon struggling with safety, or the lack of reliable infrastructure in the 360° film Dreaming of Lebanon, to the three documentary films shown as part of “The Journey Back: A VR Experience”, transporting us back in time to witness the experiences of three women who recounted their personal stories escaping the Holocaust, two of whom – Rodi Glass and Marion Deichmann – were present at the booth throughout the festival along with the film’s directors.

The author’s moment of truth outside the Grit House at SXSW

The curated experiences provided a deeper level of empathy and awareness outside of everyday consciousness, but perhaps meeting the filmmakers and, in the case of Walk to Westerbork (Directed by Mary Matheson) and Letters from Drancy (Directed by Charlotte Mikkelborg), meeting the subjects of the film played a strong counterpoint to the frivolity just on the other side of the showroom doors. It was not the experience that I had imagined, but it reinforced for me all of the reasons that we do what we do and believe so much in XR. At one point as a woman walked out of one of the films and sat down in the lounge, when she saw one of the Holocaust survivors across the room I overheard her saying “oh my God, she’s right there” through her tears. Empathy, indeed.

If VR is the world’s greatest empathy machine, then we need to have not just VR at scale, but truly more meaningful content at scale.

So what does it mean to experience empathy? And how did I come to find so much of it at a festival for the creative industries? Perhaps because of all of the turmoil in the world, the empathy found me, and that was what I was destined to take away as my SXSW lesson. Yes, we can go to parties all night long, and yes, we can go to activation after activation, but if we aren’t leaving the house to open our minds to new ideas and impressions, then why go? Empathy, as opposed to sympathy after all, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy builds the capacity to see things from the perspective of someone else. The world is struggling like crazy right now and empathy can help.

In the case of virtual reality, immersion enables us to be that someone else. Films can bring us into story, and music can move us into a mood, but virtual reality can do all of these things with more immersion, and we need less time to acclimate, the immersion is instantaneous.

I also know of no greater medium than virtual reality for achieving this. So if VR is the world’s greatest empathy machine, then we need to have not just VR at scale, but truly more meaningful content at scale.

Interestingly, the first experience that I documented at SXSW was an interactive theater piece from the Freedom Forum premiering at SXSW called “Yours to Lose” about the First Amendment, and freedom of speech. It was a deeply moving and well-done exhibit, and although it wasn’t part of the XR Experience floor, it had all the elements of an immersive 360° experience including interaction, creativity, and a twist on reality.

So over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing interviews and some more in-depth coverage of the following films. In the meantime please check out the following trailers, and even possibly a film or two in the Meta Quest 2. I assure you, you will be moved and even more likely, you’ll feel different somehow after the experience:

“The Journey Back: A VR Experience”: Three films are part of this experience 1) Walk to Westerbork, East City Films, Illinois Holocaust Museum 2) Escape to Shanghai by Charlotte Mikkelborg and 3) Letters from Drancy by Darren Emerson.

Dreaming of Lebanon: The United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (UN DPPA) Note: this can be downloaded to watch on Meta Quest systems here.

Her Name was Gisberta (Seu nome era Gisberta) a film by Portuguese Filmmaker Sérgio Galvão Roxo.

AR Insider’s Editor-at-Large Emily Olman is an XR community builder, roving journalist, and CEO & Chief Media Officer of Hopscotch Interactive.

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