Artificial Emotional Intelligence at FoST (Future of StoryTelling)
Other than “aeroponic arugula,*” “empathy” was the most common buzzword at the FoST festival, “the world’s leading immersive storytelling event,” held this past weekend in Staten Island.
Fighting fire with fire
And that’s remarkable when you think about it. So many experiential designers using technology—of all things—to create empathy.
Digital media, particularly social media, has been much maligned for getting in the way of human-to-human interface, where empathy is exchanged. It’s ironic that, in order to get back to where we were before new technology, we have to use newer technology, like advancements in VR, facial recognition and AI.
Personally, I’m so used to be spoken to while someone is looking askance at their device that when a VR character stares me dead in the eyes, I’m a bit taken aback.
By taking human empathic exchanges into account, it’s almost as if experiential pioneers are building in the antidote to the dangerous drug they’re designing. If burying our heads in screens causes us to lose our ability to emotionally connect with other humans, we may lose our ability to operate for the good of a community, a necessary component for survival.†
Human race aside, baking empathy into immersive communications, whether for entertainment or for marketing purposes, is also necessary for the survival of those communications. After all, their success relies on their ability to feel authentic and not clumsy, and their ability to make true human connections.
As part of this initiative to ensure we don’t all end up as cold bastards who let each other die in the streets, the festival hosted many experiences that rewarded empathy. One such exhibit was called Hue, a play on the name Hugh.
Hue is a virtual reality experience about a boy who has retreated into himself, and whose world has lost all color. In order to restore color back into his world, using VR hand controllers, the viewer has to tap his shoulder and give him “a kind touch.”
Returning from a day at the festival, I overheard a woman rewarding her son for a bit of human contact. She asked her 5-year-old son, “Do you want to go to the restaurant?”
“Yes,” he replied, reaching for the door.
The mom intervened, “We’re not going until you look me in the eye and tell me you want to go.”
Empathy can be its own reward
In one panel, Strategic Director from Momentum, Abbie Baehr, referenced the Coca-Cola Open Happiness Project, which included a Coke machine that was programmed to dispense Coke when people gave the machine a hug. Another machine accepted smiles as currency. Initiatives like these not only reward empathy, but they create a human connection with a product, bringing an infinite amount of positive, shareable attention to the brand.
Empathy was such a hot topic at FoST, it was clearly delineated from sympathy. In a panel discussion on experiential marketing, Creative Director from The Brand Experience, Andrew Peters, was quick to explain that empathy was active and sympathy was not. So I suppose the empath does more than send sympathies when someone dies. The empath cries together with the aggrieved, brings a ham and sits the mourner down to watch Amélie.
From a social perspective, empathy can get people to care enough to make positive social change. In fact, a whole section was devoted to “FoST for Good.” There were VR experiences in which you could interview a virtual Holocaust survivor, see inside a modern-day concentration camp in Myanmar, or go behind the razor wall of a refugee detention center on Manus Island. You could also be in the shoes of a journalist being interrogated in Iran or a honey bee at risk of extinction.
In health and wellness at large, it’s not hard to see how teaching empathy can help people with deficits in this area. One FoST exhibit called Project Blossom showed how a smart social companion (a Google-powered, stuffed pet–like object) can help children with social learning by modeling empathic responses while watching videos together.
From a pharma marketing perspective, if you can create empathy, you can build awareness around a disease and motivate a physician to make more patient-informed treatment decisions. An ad or video that shows a woman who, due to not properly treating her condition, ends up in a wheelchair, may elicit sympathy. Create a VR experience that allows the viewer to experience life from that wheelchair, and now you have empathy.
Why is that? It shows us a perspective we may not have otherwise imagined, eg, how hard it is to manipulate a wheelchair and how others react to your clumsy movements.
Theoretically, the more such levels of experience we can simulate in a participant, the more we can trick peoples’ minds into believing they are truly undergoing that experience.
Empathy above VR
All tools considered, panelist Andrew Peters had to remind the audience that you don’t always need VR to elicit empathy. I say, get one good vocalist to sing Ave Maria and you’re good to go.
Peters went on to say that it’s not the VR that moves you, it’s the empathy. To paraphrase, it’s the emotional story behind the VR. People want to do VR for everything now. Why? It’s cool—that’s why. Advancements in VR were, in fact, the lifeblood of this conference. However, as good VR and other immersive technologies become more readily available, it will become increasingly important to determine when they are truly necessary to augment empathy and when they are not.
*Festival growers could taste air-grown kale and arugula at the Bus Roots VRV, a mobile creative VR bus studio upon which greens grew to reduce the city carbon footprint.
†The possibility that making screens more human will only make things worse is a whole other online discussion.