In The Cost of Coal, a virtual reality (VR) film directed by Faiza Khan, the moment you snap on the headset, you’re transported to a coal mine in Korba, Chhattisgarh. You’re standing next to Nirupabai, who lives on the edge of the mine; she has witnessed its inexorable growth swallow up her neighbours’ ancestral property and homes. The government, unsurprisingly, is doing a miserable job of rehabilitating them. Nirupabai and you look down into the yawning canyon — the second largest coal mine in the world.
Cost of Coal was originally a 3,000 word article written by Aruna Chandrasekhar, the lead researcher on the coal issue at Amnesty International. The film was screened at the Toronto and MAMI film festivals, and recently, bought up by the United Nations’ Virtual Reality app, UNVR — the first Indian film to be on the platform. “Virtual reality has gone past being just a toy of cheap thrills. With the acquisition of Cost of Coal by UNVR, we are participating in building a network that transfers people elsewhere, builds empathy and makes the world smaller,” says Zain Memon, co-founder (alongside Anand Gandhi) of Memesys Culture Lab, the organisation that produced the film. The Cost of Coal article-VR collaboration is part of ElseVR (pronounced “elsewhere”), an app Memesys has recently debuted. It has long-form articles, written by authors and journalists, which are then augmented by VR films.
At the Memesys lab in Versova, Mumbai, Memon and his team create VR films that last a maximum of eight minutes — any longer, and the experience gets too uncomfortable and disorienting. The snap journeys back and forth from two different realities — one’s own and the one in the headset — is jolting; even after the film has ended, one is left with physical symptoms of having been in a different world. “A man watched a VR film from the viewpoint of a camera atop a drone that was flying through a valley. He was left feeling dizzy, weightless, and nauseous,” says Memon. This is certainly not a film to have popcorn with.
A VR film submerges one into a new world; sometimes, it feels voyeuristic. You’re there, but people don’t seem to know you are- except when someone looks directly at the camera. For a second, you feel like you’ve been caught. Memon calls VR an “empathy machine”. “It’s the most advanced and intuitive way of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” he says.
Or losing your shoes. As part of a thought experiment he credits to philosopher Peter Singer, Memon askes whether you would be willing to save a drowning child. You’d say yes, of course. “Even if it meant destroying your newly bought ten lakh rupees Prada shoes, for which you’d been saving up for years?” You probably still would. “But would you go home now and donate those ten lakh rupees to an NGO for hungry children?,” he asks. Now, that’s the million dollar- or ten lakh rupees- question.
The difference lies in proximity, Memon elaborates. “I could lecture you for hours about what a Syrian refugee is going through. But if you can sit down in a refugee camp, next to a child that’s been wailing for hours because he doesn’t have water to drink, being cradled by his helpless and heartbroken mother, the empathy is more pronounced,” he says.
For a perfect “empathy machine”, one needs the best possible “experience transference”. There are three steps to it. First, decrease the amount of information lost in transition. “For instance, filmmakers always try to record a video in the highest definition possible, so the greatest amount of data is preserved,” says Memon. The second is to be as concise as possible. “Albert Einstein took centuries of work in physics and gave us the relationship between matter and light in an equation that’s five characters long (E=MC2). We want to pack as much information as we can into the smallest means without any loss.” The third, and most relevant step to VR, is to make data intuitive. “An image is much more intuitive than text. I don’t need to read an article to know what a crying child means,” says Memon.
In a country like India, where premier education is limited to a chosen few, VR can serve practical purposes as well. “VR is affordable and can take the privilege of the few and give it to many,” he says. “We only allow a certain number of people to attend IIT. But with VR, anyone can sit in on a lecture at IIT. Why limit access to teachers and the curriculum when there’s no need to?”
“VR will democratize experiences,” says Memon. “It will take the privilege of the few and give it to many. I can know the thrill of driving an F1 car without having set food on the track, learn to play an instrument without actually spending thousands of rupees on it, or perform to tremendous applause on a stage at Oxford. People can fulfill their potential without being limited by the privileges they were born into.”
Though the potential of VR is still being developed, it has already become accessible to the middle class. According to Pranav Ashar, founder of Enlighten, a media company, the cheapest versions can cost just a few hundred rupees, while the more expensive ones can sell for up to $1,000. Sony Playstation VR recently opened up for pre-orders, and is already sold out. There’s Samsung’s Gear VR, Microsoft with HoloLens, Google with their 5 million+ cardboards already in the market, LG with its LG 360 VR, and the famous Oculus Rift.
Audi has already started using VR for its sales. In London, Detroit, and some parts of Brazil, the company doesn’t have test vehicles anymore. One can just sit in a chair, put on a headset, and drive the selected model around. In the colour you like it in, too. “Why create a material object when none needs to be created?,” says Memon. “Audi saved itself from having to make thousands of test cars that would have had to be discarded eventually because of wear and tear”.
“Creating material things is resource intensive,” says Memon. “But digital resources, on the hand, can be recreated easily. You just copy and paste. With VR, we can have a world where we build only the things that absolutely need to be built. For everything else, there would just be a digital counterpart.” Sounds too sci-fi? Just think of your smartphone. A few decades you ago, you would have been carrying a notebook, a calculator, a pager, and a mobile. But now, they’ve all been replaced by digital objects and fed into the software of our phones.
But, if, by snapping on a headset, one is able to simulate reality, there’s also the possibility of wiping out a scenario one doesn’t want to see. “When you’re at Juhu circle, you’re going to see an ad of a soap opera,” says Memon. “You and I don’t watch the show, nor do we care about it. We’re still forced to view that ugly, regressive poster. But in 10 years, you’ll only see ads that will appeal to you, like you do now on Facebook.” This sounds like something out of Black Mirror, the British sci-fi, tech-fi show. What are the consequences of seeing only what we want to? Menon has an answer: “The real world is not utopic or dystopic. It’s just about what works best,” he says.
But what if our virtual reality world becomes so seamless that we’d never want to take our headsets off, though? VR is, after all, a reality in which we can always be in control. I ask Memon if people would still go and see the Grand Canyon, for instance, if a VR experience could perfectly mimic the experience. Memon shakes his head- “VR wouldn’t be the same as reality. It would be better than reality. With VR you could swoop through canyons, and sit on top of peaks.” So no one would actually visit one of the most spectacular geological formations on Earth anymore? “No,” says Memon. “There would be no need to experience actual reality anymore. Why would you want to?”