Creative Agency Founder: Using VR As A Race Relationship Tool
Maurice Bernstein, CEO and Founder of Giant Step, explores the value in transforming headsets from high-tech entertainment tools into empathy machines
It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But with its immeasurable ability to replicate an ‘in the flesh’ experience, I’ve found virtual reality to be worth a million. Once you put on that headset, you are completely immersed — you cannot look away or close the browser; you cannot ignore the experience playing out before your eyes.
We are just now beginning to tap into VR’s full potential as an empathy tool – a medium sitting at the intersection of innovation and empathy – bringing viewers to the very real worlds of refugees in Syria, or Black Lives Matter protesters across the country. And it’s something I believe has the power to completely revolutionize how we empathize with one another.
VR films like The New York Times’ The Displaced and Perspective 2: The Misdemeanor are brilliant examples. The first shines a light on the harsh realities of three of the 30 million child refugees who have been displaced by war in South Sudan, Syria and the Ukraine. The latter puts you at the center of a police shooting right here in the States. Both experiences force viewers to engage with these stories in an undeniably powerful fashion: taking us far beyond the headlines of a newspaper or copy of a website, dropping us in the middle of these conflicts and encouraging us to start a dialogue. Through these films, VR pushes us — almost uncomfortably — to see and hear and feel exactly what the characters on-screen are seeing, hearing, feeling.
In most urban areas, this level of empathy is hard to come by. Though many US cities house more cultures, creeds and minority groups than any other spot on earth, living side-by-side, they maintain strict boundaries and insular outlooks. They create echo chambers in which they only see what they want to see, often distrusting one another – or, as the news constantly reminds us – distrusting local law enforcement.
I see VR as an opportunity to capture the cultural nuances of these communities, their feelings about authorities and one another, the realities of their day-to-day lives. It would allow us to immerse these groups in each another’s rituals and personalities, or perhaps even in the personalities of their local policemen and women.
With VR, viewers can explore the lives and attitudes of others in a completely safe, completely isolated environment. We are all more comfortable with discomfort when we’re alone, in the sanctity and security of our own space, and VR affords that opportunity. You cannot look away — but with no one judging your response or reaction, you may not even want to. It allows for the sort of quiet contemplation that can lead to greater understanding, transforming headsets from a high-tech, entertainment tools into empathy machines.
But this medium also has the power to give us a glimpse of the good in the world – to warm our hearts, so to speak. TOMs recently created a VR experience that did exactly that, bringing the company’s “one for one” mission to life and taking its customers on a journey to deliver shoes to children in Africa. Having watched the film first-hand, I have never felt so connected to a brand or its cause. We all want to do good, but seeing that good take place – seeing that child receiving the shoes your purchase made possible – well, there’s just nothing better.
Through experiences like this, it is clear that VR can better our day-to-day attitudes and realities – evoking empathy on a deeper level than any other medium, at a time when our world needs it most. It’s a technology that can repair the damage tech has done in shortening our attention spans; a constructed environment that allows us to break down and deconstruct very real barriers.
Maurice Bernstein is the Co-Founder and CEO of the award-winning experience brand agency Giant Step. As CEO, he has lead the creation and execution of campaigns for brands including Levi’s, Absolut Vodka, Samsung, Bacardi, Old Navy, Intel, Coca-Cola and Western Union—developing brand experiences that fans want to consume. With roots in the music industry, Giant Step has also launched the careers of Amy Winehouse, Daft Punk, The Roots, Mark Ronson and Lady Gaga, turning these artists into cultural mainstays, just as it has for brands.