Empathy and Uncanniness in The Enemy VR experience

Inside a modern gallery building with ample rooms, white walls, and  skylights, one encounters fighters from three long standing armed conflicts: Israel-Palestine, el Salvador, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Combatants appear in pairs at clean and well lighted rooms.  Each room correspond to one of the conflicts, and the two fighters that appear are enemies, from opposite sides, each standing in front of a black-and-white portrait of himself. You confront each of these soldiers, look at each them in the eyes while they stand at different sides of the room, and listen to the answers each fighter provides to the same set of questions about war, violence, killing, peace, freedom, fear, and enemies. After listening to the six fighters, and passing the three rooms,  you arrive to a hall where there is a chance to meet one of the combatants, the one that greatly connected with you and made you feel empathy.

Last December I have the opportunity to visit The Enemy, a virtual reality (VR) installation and immersive experience at the MIT museum. The paragraph above is a brief summary of what I experienced during the almost 60 minutes I was immersed in a virtual gallery, walking and listening to fighters. A hybrid of a documentary, virtual world, and 360 video, The Enemy is a unique VR piece created by Ben Khelifa, a war photojournalist, in collaboration with Fox Harrell, an MIT professor of digital media, and co-produced by Camera Lucida Productions, France Télévisions, the NFB, and Emissive. The piece has been featured in several film festivals and has received several reviews in mayor magazines and newspapers. This year The Enemy continues its tour through museums and festivals around the world.

The Enemy has received a lot of attention for the topic it addresses, as well as for its innovative use of AI technology for interactive storytelling, and, more specifically, for pushing the boundaries of what can be considered a VR documentary or journalism. Although the piece is compelling and enjoyable, I found it problematic at many levels. In this entry I discuss some of the issues related to the use of the virtual/physical space, the bulky apparatus, and the intention to produce empathy.

The Mediated Space

A whole floor at the MIT Museum served as the location for The Enemy. This ample physical space was set up with a system of sensors that could track the movement of all the visitors in real time. The space was also mapped in a way so it corresponded to the layout of the virtual world of The Enemy. That is, the space of a gallery. A total of 25 people could be at the physical space at once, and they were divided in groups of 5, so they could experience together the virtual world.

Visitors enter the space first without headsets and computer backpacks that allow them to experience the VR, so they just walk through one of the edges of the physical space. I thought the space looked quite empty, with just few people with bulky apparatus attached to their bodies, moving very slowly, standing,  and moving their heads.

I thought the choice of a virtual gallery or museum, with few rooms, limited the experience of the audience. The visitors or participants could not really move freely in this space. I personally felt constrained in my movements and at moments thought I wanted to leave the virtual space. However, I encounter the system did not allow you but pushed you to stay in the designated room. At that point, I felt like the surveillance system of sensors was not really used for allowing visitors to experiment with their movements, but merely to herd them towards the virtual gallery.

The Bulky Apparatus

The gear that visitors need to wear in order to experience The Enemy is top of the art. Oculus Rift headsets and backpacks with Alienware gaming computers allow the audience to enter a virtual world of a gallery where they can see, listen, and move, and also be tracked (to the granular level of eye movement).  Once the visitors enter the physical space, they are guided towards an area where they are dressed with these bulky gear. Once the participants have the gear on their heads and  backs, they are ready to start the experience, together with a group of other 4 people.

I found the bulkiness of the VR gear problematic. As I have argued in a another post, the VR apparatus creates a limitation for a shared experience. Although participants were supposed to enter the virtual gallery in groups of 4, we could not really talk to each other participant. The bulky gear isolated each of us inside our individualized experience. What we see or listen was only in the speaker and screen of our headset. We could see in the virtual world standardized silhouettes of the other 4 participants without any face or any feature that allowed interaction. The feeling of a shared experience was very limited, and was merely limited to knowing that other 4 people were supposed to be at one of the virtual rooms at the same time. I wish I could talk not only to the other participants, but perhaps more important, to the fighters. Unfortunately, the microphone of the headsets, with its multiple interactive and communication capabilities, was underutilized in The Enemy.

Despite all the state of the art of the gear,  the ability to track the movement in space and the movement of the eyes, and the AI engine that process user data in real time, the virtual world and characters did not feel real. I quickly lost my suspension of disbelief after 10 minutes of being immersed in the virtual gallery and being in the first room. Technology did not work as well as to disappear, it was bulky at the physical level, and at the virtual imagery dimension was sometimes glitchy and unrealistic.

Empathy and Uncanniness

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of The Enemy is that the production of empathy towards the fighters, one of its major goals, as stated by Ben Khelifa, is not completely achieved. Although it is true that the 3D modeling of the combatants is impressive, and their body movements and gestures (including the movement of their eyes) is advanced and sophisticated, they failed to evoke an empathetic response. At least in my personal experience, I felt like the rendering of the combatants did not leave the uncanny valley. The six virtual characters, despite their resemblance to the original fighters, their sizes, and movements, produced a feeling of uncanniness and did not allow me to fully experience human-to-human empathy.

The contrast between the black and white portraits and the 3D imagery of the fighters was huge. The portraits felt way more realistic and revealed more about the context than the virtual characters.   Although the virtual characters have complete bodies and reacted to the eye movements and position in the space of the audience, they were situated out of context in a clean and white gallery space. This dislocation of the combatants in a nowhere space, together with the erasure of the history of their conflicts created an obstacle for feeling empathy. Listening to the answers to the questions that Ben Khelifa asks them, felt for me as an incomplete introduction to their humanity, and their struggles. As a participant of this experience I wanted to also ask them some questions, interact with them beyond a mere voyeur who only can watch them and listen to them in silence. Even though the voices of the characters felt real and their stories interesting, it was an incomplete approximation to their humanity. How can you experience empathy without dialogue? without the possibility of asking questions ourselves?

I wonder if a film or a radio documentary about war enemies could have reached the ultimate goal of engender a form of empathy.  I wonder what would have happened if instead of watching 3D characters the audience could just watch footage of each soldier in their everyday life and battles, listening not only to answers to the same limited set of questions, but instead to a more nuanced description of the contexts of their war. It is true that war enemies resemble each other in some of their motivations, but armed conflicts have also different histories, different balances of power. Attempting to put the fighters of the three different conflicts at the same level erases a part of their humanity, that is complex, and tied to social groups, and territories.

Although it is true that through the combatants’ answers the audience can realize that the enemies are very similar, resemble each other in their motivations, and wish they could leave in peace, the narrative and the 3D visuals are not powerful and fluid enough to, in my opinion, provoke empathy and identify with the soldiers. However, the AI system of The Enemy experience would determine the fighter that you feel more connected to, based on how  one moves the body and the eyes when is listening to each of the virtual fighters. That conclusion to the experience, seemed to me, unnatural and uncanny, like a forced attempt to determine how the audience felt empathy.




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