Why Virtual Reality Design Needs Empathetic Storytelling

Why Virtual Reality Design Needs Empathetic Storytelling
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with Ben Kornacki, Kateryna Derzhavina, Nicholas Richards, Shaoning Wei, Sina Alipour-Nazari, and Sophie Lee — students in Markus Giesler’s MBA course Customer Experience Design at the Schulich School of Business.


When Mark Zuckerberg took his followers on a virtual tour of flood-devastated Puerto Rico, he was criticized by the public for being “tone deaf” and found himself apologizing the next day. Critics found the idea of a cartoon avatar touring a disaster-stricken area shallow and distasteful. What did Zuckerberg do wrong? And more importantly, what could he have done right?

VR (virtual reality) has emerged as a powerful tool with the potential for inciting empathy, presence and immersion in its users. But have companies and marketers hoping to leverage VR to add value to their platforms taken advantage of these latent capacities? In the days of Shakespeare, thespians would captivate audiences with dramas invoking these very aspects of empathic experiences. However, the contemporary ‘storyscapes’ of VR have the texture and persuasiveness to bring this transference of ‘feeling’ to a whole new level.

In recent years, VR has been identified as the next big technological innovation with the potential to disrupt not only the media and gaming industries, but also healthcare, education and even construction. Nonetheless, uptake of VR sets have been dismal, delivering $1.8 billion in sales in 2016, 75% below expected revenue forecasts. (Fortune, 2017).

Besides often cited barriers, such as price, technology and content, one of the biggest hurdles VR companies face is a social narrative that demonizes the technology as dehumanizing and unnatural. To fight this negative image, the humanistic applications of VR must be communicated through the technology’s ability to generate empathy.

That was one thing Zuckerberg got right, but the delivery was all wrong. He failed to tell a compelling story or use perspective to incite empathy in his viewers; his reference to how cool the technology is while touring “news footage” proved case-in-point. Marketers are no strangers to the importance of storytelling when it comes to building brands and engaging audiences. In a market-driving context like VR where machine connectivity must serve social connectivity (Giesler, 2015), the need to establish an emotional connection with customers is paramount.

Make-A-Wish Foundation recently partnered with Trick 3D to build such a story. Zayden’s Journey is a true story about a young boy with a debilitating heart condition who lived his dream of taking a red rocket ship to Saturn (Laguna, 2017). Zayden’s Wish campaign hit its mark by developing a compelling experience located within the intersection of effective storytelling and VR.

With no gravity to hold him back Zayden was launched into outer space and flew among the bright stars of his dreams. The Make-A-Wish Foundation and Trick3D applied concepts from The Hero’s Journey (Campbell, 1969) to position VR as a supernatural aid to enable Zayden’s journey to Saturn and to create Zayden’s transformation from a sick child into an astronaut. Tapping into consumers’ innate receptivity to a well-crafted story, the use of VR to power Zayden’s journey evoked a strong emotional response from audiences and succeeded in positioning VR as a technology with significant capacity to elicit empathy and human connection. Zayden’s video on YouTube collectively generated over 300,000 views, one of the most viewed features by Make-A-Wish America.

The idea of technology bringing about a dehumanizing dystopia is not all that unfamiliar and pervades major artefacts of culture (books, films, and general discourse) of the past century. The reaction to Zuckerberg’s “journey” to Puerto Rico shows that virtual proximity does not always bring us emotionally closer, and that people can clearly feel the emotional void in virtual spaces. While technology designers could compensate by introducing emojis and facial expressions to fill the emotional gap of the technological experience, marketers can battle the dehumanizing image of technology by telling the story of VR as a true emotional enabler.

Are the ‘storyscapes’ of virtual reality truly the new frontier of the enduring human narrative? If so, how can developers and marketers ensure their platforms draw from the inexhaustible wellspring of the human experience to build captivating models of interactive journeys?

The Formula

Problem Identification: Which fundamental issues does the VR-experience seek to address?

Zayden’s Journey: How do we bring a child with a serious heart condition into outer-space?

Story Mapping: Designing a cohesive and compelling story arc to address the protaganist’s objectives

Zayden’s Journey: Zayden’s vision of outer space combined with expert consultation brought his wish to life

Emotional Journey: Eliciting emotional responses throughout the story arc, building up to a new perspective

Zayden’s Journey: From adversity to accomplishment; Travelling through space, Interacting with aliens, Landing on Saturn.

Enactment/Participation: Designing the tools (technological & narrative) that enable the user to participate

Zayden’s Journey: Underwent training; Interactions with spaceship and aliens, Spacesuit and Equipment.

Transformation/Metamorphosis: Inspiring a transformational change whereby the hero returns from his journey a new person.

Zayden’s Journey: Zayden returned from his journey a triumphant astronaut; he had travelled the cosmos and lived out his dreams.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Pub. Co., 1969.

“From Smart Homes To.” Markus Giesler | Big Design Lab, www.mgiesler.com/blog/2016/11/10/shifting-from-smart-homes-to-smart-families-via-customer-experience-design.

Laguna, Gail. “Making Impossible Wishes Come True with Virtual Reality | NVIDIA Blog.” The Official NVIDIA Blog, 10 Nov. 2017, blogs.nvidia.com/blog/2017/10/23/make-a-wish-vr/.

“VR Sales Numbers Are Wet Blanket on Adoption Hopes.” Fortune, fortune.com/2017/02/19/virtual-reality-vr-sales.

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