Immersive Experiences for Social Change

George Molina
Product Manager
Read Time
12 min read
Published On
August 8, 2016

​At every stage of our lives, we have dreams of being successful in our own respect and even indulge ourselves in the delusion of being someone else to escape our reality. From dreaming of the day you are Kendrick Lamar spitting bars in front of thousands to replacing your friend who is currently backpacking in Europe, dreaming of wanting to someone else or someone famous is nothing out of the ordinary.

On the flip side, when was the last time you imagined being less fortunate than you are now? Not a few dollars poorer mind you, but completely penniless with no home or family. Imagine yourself as that, as an eight year old Syrian refugee who was separated from her family amidst all the chaos. I bet you have never imagined experiencing the pain of being forever bound to a wheelchair or the struggles of being autistic and experiencing constant stimulation overloads.

There’s nothing wrong with this, if there was a choice between being Kendrick Lamar or a Syrian refugee for a day, most would rather be spitting rhymes. It’s nice to dream and imagine once in awhile, but the fact is that Kendrick Lamar is indeed real and sadly so are thousands of Syrian refugees.

Despite reading various articles and watching documentaries and news reports from time to time, most people turn a blind eye or quickly forget. It’s our emotional empathy that enables others to understand and share feelings of another and with the amount of violence and tragedies arising recently, it’s no wonder it’s at an all time low.

Being empathetic, especially to the ones that are less fortunate can shift your perspective and give you opportunity to learn to think, feel, and act beyond yourself. It’s the factor that makes you want to put yourself in Syrian refugee’s shoes and it’s the factor that makes you want to help. For those that understand the importance of this, they’re trying to help in their own unique ways; one of them using Virtual Reality and 360 Video.

One of the most powerful tools for creating an emotional response is visually. There are filmmakers, engineers and designers now working to create immersive experiences with virtual reality and 360 video to help create these responses. So bring out your Google glass, Samsung VR Gear, Oculus Rift, or HTC Vive, and let’s hop on the emotional roller coaster and live vicariously through a few individuals to experience what they saw, heard, and most importantly, how they felt.



Since 2012, the two co-founders of RYOT, Bryn Mooser and David Darg have been creating documentaries in the medium of immersive experiences. The topics of their works have expanded beyond their original focus of 2010 Haiti Earthquake to covering critical issues such as elephant poaching, oil industry pollution and the migration of refugees.

One of our favorite works from them would be Confinement. A powerful documentary covering prison and inmate culture, the immersive experience is set inside a solitary confinement cell. Looking closely at select inmates, we are guided through stories of how it is to live in a tiny concrete box and their inhuman treatment for years and for some, even decades. While the visual and audio elements are simple, it turns to be extremely effective when paired with the powerful narration. If the documentary was viewed from the big screen, it would certainly have been memorable, but viewing it from my headset with a full 360 experience made it that much more powerful.


In my Shoes

In 2007 Jane Gauntlett experienced a traumatic brain injury that left her in coma for three weeks. Six months after that she was diagnosed with epilepsy, giving her seizures episodes without any prior signs or warnings. In such a short amount of time her world had completely turned upside-down. Not only did she have a tough time adjusting, but the people around her were also unaccustomed to the symptoms of the disorder.

Using 360 video, she started an immersive experience project In my Shoes as a tool to articulate immersively  what it is like to be in her shoes and to help her family and friends understand this. Using a GoPro and other instruments, she recreates her dreadful experience of a seizure incident she had in an upscale restaurant while waiting for her friends. While it started off as a tool for communicating with direct family and friends, the video has gained a lot of traction and has influenced many across numerous countries and institutions.

One of the most memorable parts of the experience was how she simulates her version of a blackout. No matter how much you turn or how hard you look, everything is pitch dark. The audio of a loud pink noise and an unnerving visual of darkness truly creates the illusion of being disconnected from your body and the outside world; an exceptional look into what a seizure episode is like.


Clouds Over Sidra

We soak up all different kinds of news each and every day. Whether one company acquired another or whether there are issues in a country, the internet has enabled people around the world to have constant access to news. When it comes to issues in the Middle East specifically, it has been a constant issue in the past couple decades. With Syrian refugees being one of the most recent issues, there have been a lot of newspapers and news reports covering this. However, does this really give us the full picture of the issue? While a lot of people are informed about the situation, it’s the empathy that is lacking here. People soak up news, but what do they do after? They forget and wait for something else to pop up--a completely normal  behavior these days.

Chris Milk and Bago Arora set out a journey aiming to solve this issue of de-sensitization. Capturing the life of Syrian refugees’ lives in the camp in Jordan, the immersive experience follows a 12-year-old Syrian girl who has spent an year and a half in the refugee camp. Talking about her view of education, entertainment, and quality of life within the boundaries of the camp, the experience takes you to multiple places in the camp like her home, school, bakery, and computer shop. We can never be sure if the barbed wire fence around the camp is to keep others from getting in or to keep them from getting out, but the life in a refugee camp through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl, is somehow naive yet optimistic. ​


A Walk Through Dementia

While most diseases discovered by doctors have their combatting cures and treatments, Dementia does not. Dementia is not simply a byproduct of aging, but an extremely complex disease that affects millions of people around the world everyday. Symptoms can include  forgetfulness, limited social skills, and thinking abilities so impaired that it interferes with daily functioning. The struggles of handling this disorder not only involves the patient, but the people surrounding also. Dementia, the disorder wrapped in mystery and confusion, is one of the most heartbreaking and confusing to deal with since the symptoms have been sorted out, but the cause and cure is unknown. Wives, husbands, children, and parents are often quickly turned into caretakers for patients and hardly know how to deal with it.

Developed by Alzheimer’s Research UK, A Walk through Dementia is a series of immersive experiences going through daily life from the viewpoint of dementia patients. Recreating what the patients see and how they feel, this series is an attempt to try to get these emotions across to people who are looking after them to help them understand the disorder itself.

The rhythmic pounding of the heart, the panicking pitch of the voice, and the semi-interactive environment is more than enough to show the viewer what it’s like to have Dementia. However, after testing it myself, it not only showed me what it was like, but also somehow convinced my mind I had Dementia also. It was absolutely terrifying when my brain couldn’t remember certain aspects that the narrator was also trying to recall. This realistic measure to show what Dementia does to an individual is dauntingly effective, and we can confidently say that the 360 video did its job. ​


'Be Another' Lab

Unlike other immersive experience projects that have been covered, ‘Be Another Lab’ doesn’t use a pre-recorded experience to draw out others’ empathy but instead uses a live performer that mimics your actions and visuals from their point of view. These are then transmitted to your VR headset, effectively creating your identity virtually onto a different person’s body with the ability of interacting with surroundings. The performer also wears a microphone to tell their personal narrative throughout the experience.  

This allows you to truly feel what it is like to be bounded on a wheelchair, to be the opposite gender, or to be a different race by enabling you to interact with the body that you’re virtually in. You can move around in a room, interact with different objects in a variety of settings such as in a different color of skin or physical condition. Most interesting of all, you’re able to virtually switch body with another person with the device Be Another Lab has developed that lets you see yourself from other’s point of view.

All these experiences gives us an unprecedented empathetic perspective on some situations, and looking at the more somber parts of life makes reality as real as it can get without actually being there.