Is There Empathy for Empathetic Media?

In the aftermath of a brutal election cycle that portrayed the media in an unflattering light, Empathetic Media is harnessing the power of the press for a different purpose, to create empathy in the world.

In today’s day and age, most readers are desensitized to the news. Content has become so easy to come across that most readers no longer feel as bothered by stories about bombings, shootings, rape and death.

Empathetic Media is on a mission to change that by using graphic journalism, virtual and augmented reality to tell stories in an immersive new way, with an emphasis on fostering empathy in its audiences. According to their website, the company’s goal is to “marry the media with the story to create a completely new story experience.”

Empathetic Media, a “transmedia agency creating the next generation of immersive stories,” was founded in 2015 by Dan Archer, a thought leader in the world of interactive storytelling. Archer’s goal was to use cutting-edge technology to target the latest generation of story consumers and make them sensitive and sympathetic to the news.

 

With that in mind, Virtual Reality is important to the company because it provides a sensory platform for Empathetic Media to instill empathy in its viewers. Just as The New York Times understands that Virtual Reality can be used to place its viewers virtually at the heart of a story, Empathetic Media recognizes that Virtual Reality technology can give the general public a greater understanding of the issues that plague today’s society.

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Man testing Virtual Reality technology (credit:Maurizio Pesce)

According to data released by Statista, an online statistics portal, the total number of active Virtual Reality users worldwide is forecast to reach 171 million by 2018. The market for Virtual Reality is set to grow at a fast rate, with revenues from software alone expected to reach over a 3,000 percent increase in four years.

One way that Empathetic Media is taking advantage of this promising new field is by producing a Virtual Reality video called “Ferguson Firsthand.” The video, which was completed in partnership with Fusion in 2015, guides its viewers through the fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014 by Officer Darren Wilson. It allows viewers to relive the shooting through multiple contradictory eyewitness accounts, taken verbatim from the grand jury trial and unedited broadcast footage.

 

Empathetic Media also produced a Virtual Reality video titled “Peace in Colombia,” which allows users to experience true stories first-hand and decide on the path they wish to take as they shape the narrative of the peace-making process in Colombia. It’s based on the face-to-face stories of victims and offenders from opposite sides of the conflict, which has been going on for decades in a small community outside of Medellin, Colombia.

The team at Empathetic Media is doing a good job of latching on to the next big thing. According to Piper Jaffray, 500 million Virtual Reality headsets could be sold by 2025. As of June 2016, about 1.3 million people are already subscribed to the YouTube 360 channel, and Google’s Cardboard app has been downloaded 10 million times, according to The Motley Fool.

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An example of how Augmented Reality works (credit: Bronze Software Labs) 

In addition to Virtual Reality, empathetic Media is also making strides in Augmented Reality, having released the world’s first sequential Augmented Reality storytelling app. Augmented Reality supplements a real world environment, typically observed through the lens of a smartphone camera, by adding in audio, video, maps, 3D graphics and GPS data to enhance what we see. Empathetic Media’s Augmented Reality projects range from an interactive infographic breakdown of Trump’s real estate empire to a video meant to draw awareness to the issue of modern human trafficking.

At Empathetic Media, they’ve even been making 360 videos placing viewers right at the heart of Times Square.

While the numbers seem to indicate that Virtual Reality is becoming increasingly popular, I am skeptical about the extent that Virtual Reality is catching on. With 31 videos on their YouTube channel and an average of 364 views per video, it is surprising that a company like Empathetic Media doesn’t have more of an online presence. (Furthermore, the number of average views is higher than it should be, since there is one outlying video with 8,128 views whereas the video with the second highest number of views is 361, and most views per vide tend to fall under 100).

Despite these numbers, many major news organizations have taken on Virtual Reality, suggesting that these numbers should not be discouraging. The New York Times has been a frontrunner in this field, creating an app for Virtual Reality Videos and starting a program to publish a new 360 video every day. Since the mainstream media, like Conde Nast, Vice Media, Disney, Comcast and Time Warner, all seem to be investing in this technology, then the onus is on them to take the technology to the next level and make it just as iconic as the idea of enjoying a Saturday morning with a hot cup of coffee and freshly printed newspaper.

 

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