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How to increase empathy with your audience through storytelling in VR

Throughout the years, storytellers from the big screen to the small screen, have been engaging audiences by building characters that viewers can relate and empathise with. This not only increases engagement with the production but, more than that, it drives loyalty.

Loyalty, whether it’s to production companies like Marvel Studios, directors like Steven Spielberg or actors like Dwayne Johnson, ultimately ensures revenue for the next production, and the next, and the next. Similarly, for television, viewing figures are everything in this now crowded marketplace. Engaging audiences with great storytelling is essential for viewing loyalty. Loyalty drives revenue and this is what most marketing execs dream to achieve.

Nothing new here I hear you say. It is what you will find in most marketing, branding and storytelling courses - engage your audience, drive empathy and build the brand.

Until the last few years, storytellers have been limited to letting their audience imagine what it would be like or having to watch what it is like. The more a consumer can imagine what it is like - the more powerful the content. This does mean storytellers need to rely on the viewer's imagination and ability to empathise. Herein lies the challenge - not everyone has the imagination or empathy to be able to fully engage.

Why VR?

A woman using a VR headset outside

Since the emergence of Virtual Reality (VR), storytellers can let their viewers experience the story rather than watch the story, therefore removing the imagination requirement. No longer does the viewer need to be a passenger, watching the story from the sidelines. Viewers can now be active participants - transported into the middle of the story itself; walking in another’s shoes and experiencing their world; feeling what they feel, and hearing what they hear, and fully immerse themselves in another reality. That is the power of VR.

VR can provide a very moving experience. We have recently completed “Children Looked After – A child’s journey through the care system”. This VR experience transports you into the body of a child, living the challenging moments they will experience as they make their own journey through the UK care system.  Be prepared though - not many dry eyes after this one.  If you’d like to view this experience, just let me know.

A young girl sitting on the floor with head head on her knees

This is why many charities are now turning to VR to tell their story. With an increase in empathy comes an increase in charitable donations.

Of course, content, as always, is king! (apologies I am back to marketing 101 again!) The story must be engaging. There are many VR experiences out there where you can tell VR was chosen as the medium because it is the new buzz word – VR as a gimmick – with the result being too much time was spent on VR, and too little on content. Don’t get me wrong - even these experiences are still immersive as VR itself is an immersive medium, so you can’t get it too wrong (Jumanji VR being the exception!). 

But let’s get it right.  Create fantastic content for VR, tell an engaging story, use VR correctly… and you can hit gold.

So, how do you drive empathy in VR?

Firstly, I would tell the story from the first person’s point of view. This transports the viewer into one of the characters and they will be able to empathise more easily. For example, one of our next projects is a VR Experience of the plight of the homeless. One of the scenes in this production is a drunken yob aggressively intimidating a homeless person. Watching someone intimidating a homeless person is a very different experience in comparison to actually being the homeless person and finding yourself aggressively intimidated.

A bearded man using a VR headset outside

Secondly, sight and sound. To immerse your viewer as much as possible, make the experience look as real life as possible. As always, this can depend on the viewer and their imagination, and how much they allow themselves to be sucked into a fantasy world. But the closer you can get to real life, the larger the viewer demographic you will engage. Similarly, make the sound as real as possible. Spatial sound is a very useful tool to persuade the viewer they are actually in a different environment.  It may take a little more time and increase your budget – but trust me, it will be worth it.

Thirdly, try and stay away from touch (for now) especially if you want the experience to drive empathy. Unless your story calls for the use of a controller in the story, adding this element in, although sometimes fun, can negatively affect the level of empathy felt. Haptics are still being developed and technology is powering forward, but currently they are either not good enough or cost prohibitive to include.

Last and by no means least, ensure your story is right for 360/VR. Adapting a story to VR can work but you will know if it hasn’t worked when your viewers are watching the experience in a 2D fashion. YouTube’s announcement that 75% of viewers are still watching only the front 90 degrees of 360 content is not only an education issue (opening the viewer's mind on how you can watch media) but also 360/VR producers are still creating content in a 2D fashion. As I mentioned above, you will still have a level of increased engagement for your story, due to it being a 360/VR production, but by delivering a true 360 storytelling experience the results can be so, so much more.

Good luck with your next VR project and I look forward to seeing it.

Contact [email protected] if you'd like to work with us. 

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