Gabo Arora on the VR Revolution

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The virtual world has become more vital than ever as we spend our weeks working through  video chats and trying to connect to loved ones through our screens, said Gabo Arora, a world-renowned and award-winning immersive artist, professor, and former UN diplomat. 

He talked about the future of virtual reality and its value as a platform for empathetic storytelling in a session with WIRED for South by Southwest.  Arora emerged on the VR scene with a filmmaking background and is the Founding Director of the new Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technologies (ISET) program at Johns Hopkins University. He believes storytelling as a medium is one still being molded and encourages creators to continue to experiment when storytelling. 

Due to the isolation people around the world are facing due to COVID-19 quarantine, real life interactions are under threat and, instead of being replaced by the virtual connections, human connections are proving to be invaluable. Arora argues that social connections through VR may have the ability to bring people closer together.  VR has the ability “to expand your consciousness and allow people to experience human stories”. According to him, it will never replace but it could enhance our connections with the world and the people around you.  On the effectiveness of conveying empathy, Arora believes VR is most powerful when you come out of it with a new perspective. I’ve always been influenced by books – they’re the original empathy machines and when you read them…, you care about issues differently, you engage with the world,” says Arora. 

To illustrate the power of VR, Arora highlights the work of Iranizan artist Ali Eslami, who created a virtual experience called Death Tolls. Eslami took the number of deaths during the years of conflict in Syria and represented them with body bags. The viewer would fly through imaginary areas within the VR experience seeing what 80,000 deaths really look like. In his discussion around how VR can merge with live experiences, Arora references the Royal Swedish Ballet performance of Sharol Eyal’s dance piece – Half Life, that was released in VR, produced at the Royal Swedish Opera.  

As for the future of VR and storytelling, Arora encourages creators to continue to invest and develop content for the platform. “There is a hunger among many young people to become completely digitally native,” he says, and “they will continue to want control and to make stuff that can shape their own experience on the internet.”