Using VR & Immersive Tech to Forge Empathetic Connections
By Shane Zucker & Justin Molinari, Left Field Labs
October 3, 2019

Using VR & Immersive Tech to Forge Empathetic Connections

To ensure success when working with clients in the new era of emerging media possibilities, it’s critical to design solutions that powerfully imprint the intended message into the awaiting hearts and minds of the audience. Most importantly, how do we get media consumers to feel something new with depth and understanding?

Virtual Reality (VR) and immersive experience are becoming increasingly more prevalent as an ask from brands and organizations everywhere. Agencies and studios are in a mad rush to acquire the latest skills and resources to deliver the request. But do these mediums actually help to connect and impact consumers? It seems they do. 

With VR and other immersive techniques, we can bring clients’ intentions to life in a way that has never been done before. Marry the tech with a well-crafted story and the comprehension at a mental and emotional level is dramatically multiplied. Research at the University of Maryland has shown that recall is enhanced when stimuli are received through an immersive world like VR, rather than a traditional 2D interface like a monitor. This is just one piece of the puzzle.

Humans have often wondered how our feelings about the world are influenced by our experience. From dreams and visualization to positive thinking, our beliefs seem to be malleable extensions of what we put into our brains, consciously or not. The more detailed and emotionally relevant our fantasy or intention is, the more impact they can have on our motivations.  

VR lets us create a believable experience that the brain, at times, is unable to distinguish from the real world. This is called presence. All of us can agree that going through a real-world life experience rather than reading or hearing about it creates a longer-lasting impression. By crafting relatable stories that seek to convey the essence of a goal and bringing our audience directly into the situation as if they were really there, the neurons have become ripe for the planting.

Our agency, Left Field Labs, prides itself on partnerships and projects with outcomes that benefit the greater good. Earlier in the year, we partnered with ad agency RK Venture to craft a virtual reality project that revolved around a topic that has a huge emotional tie-in — drunk driving — as part of the New Mexico Department of Transportation’s ongoing ENDWI campaign.

To best communicate and tell the human side of this story, we turned to rapid breakthroughs within volumetric capture and 3D scanning. Modern 3D scanning is bringing real-life locations and objects into the virtual world with stunning clarity, allowing artists and storytellers to mix the virtual with the real. With the ENDWI VR experience, we worked with Microsoft’s Mixed Reality Capture Studio to bring every detail of an actor’s performance to life with volumetric performance capture in a way that previous techniques could not. The hand-in-hand evolution of pre-production, set lighting and post-processing capture techniques, combined with modern graphics hardware, allows playback of these performances to look real while rendering in realtime. 

Bringing a real actor’s performance into a virtual experience is a game changer because of the emotional connection it creates. For ENDWI, the combination of rich immersion with compelling nonlinear storytelling proved to affect the participants at a visceral level — with the goal of changing behavior further down the road.

Right now, many of the most compelling experiences are confined to wired headsets tied to expensive computers. Upcoming VR headset releases, such as the Oculus Quest, are bringing much of the immersive power and interactivity of current hardware to compact and portable form factors with a much more affordable price. Immersive computing is also expanding with headsets like Magic Leap One bringing spatial awareness and interactivity to augmented reality. The future is still open as to how the many new techniques and technologies will combine and interact to work with existing models of storytelling, as well as creating new ones.

When someone puts on a headset, they are making a commitment to engage and move their being into a receptive state. How can we, as creators, maintain the sense of curiosity, believability and presence? How do we engage viewers without causing mental and emotional walls to arise? These are questions that will continued to be asked with every new project. However, the impact is already being felt as brands, media companies and artists are discovering that there is no better way to make a real emotional connection with people.

Shane Zucker is creative director and Justin Molinari is VR lead developer at Left Field Labs in Culver City, CA.