Chris Milk on how VR can make us more empathetic

Director Chris Milk has become renowned for work that mixes cutting edge technology with old-fashioned, emotional storytelling. In this recent TED talk, he explains how virtual reality offers the opportunity for viewers to engage more deeply with other people’s stories than ever before…

Virtual reality has been seized upon by brands and ad agencies recently as the latest hot new thing. Many of its uses so far have been in the style of gaming, but in this short and entertaining talk, Milk offers a vision of a VR future where we can use the headsets to understand each other better. “It’s a machine,” he says, “but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic and we become more connected, and ultimately we become more human.”



Milk’s forays into virtual reality so far include a work he shot for the United Nations where he followed a 12 year-old Syrian refugee named Sidra in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. The resulting work was then shown to attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. One of the problems for VR at this stage is its inaccessibility: headsets are still rare and viewers usually only get the opportunity to view VR experiences at events. But by deliberately targeting an audience at Davos, the UN turned this exclusivity into an advantage. They may not have shown the work to many, but they knew that every viewer was in a position of power.

Milk plans to shoot more VR pieces for the UN, focusing on communities in need. “When you’re sitting there in her room watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her,” he says of the film about Sidra. “When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on, and because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You emphasise with her in a deeper way. I think we can change minds with this machine.”