The thing I love about VR is that it’s not limited to entertainment. We can use it for something meaningful. Google’s Beyond the Map is a wonderful example of VR being used as a vehicle for empathy in parts of the world we probably would never experience for ourselves.
It’s an interactive website that lets you explore the iconic favelas of Rio de Janeiro, which were previously not any maps. The creators of this VR experience wanted to shed light on this region of Rio in a more accurate vein, as they wanted to counter the popular media coverage of the favelas, which is primarily composed of crime, poverty, and gang warfare. In the 360 video platform, you can choose where to go in the favelas as you follow different stories of different people. The one I found most compelling was the story about the boy who practices ballet at one of Brazil’s most esteemed ballet schools. It was incredible traveling there on a motorcycle, weaving through the impossibly narrow alleyways and roads of the favelas.
I think that Google’s Beyond the Map offers a necessary look into a region of the world that’s often misrepresented in popular media. One of the most poignant moments of the experience was the ballet dancer’s mother, who said that people think you’re destined to be a thug if you’re from the favelas, but her son is showing everyone otherwise. Google using 360 video as a means to celebrate the favelas in a positive light is a step forward in how VR is used for empathy. I myself am moving in this direction with 360 filmmaking, as Chris Milk’s VR projects have inspired me to pursue making a documentary about undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Beyond the Maps is a beautiful project demonstrating VR’s ability to unify humanity. Sounds lofty, I know, but imagine what would happen if you brought someone to a place they’ve never been to. It’s inevitably going to result in an expanded understanding. That’s what we need the most right now. So let’s keep doing it with VR.