‘Headspace VR’ Study Examines Audience and Empathy

Erin Reilly
11 min readSep 11, 2017

By Erin Reilly and Amara Aguilar

Overview of Headspace VR preliminary findings. Please share!
Ajene in awe with his 1st time experiencing VR.

As 20-year old Ajene Harris slipped on a Samsung Gear VR headset for the first time at the University of Southern California Innovation Lab, his mouth dropped.

The USC communications major began to be immersed in the New York Times’ “Fight for Fallujah,” a virtual reality story that takes users to a war-torn area filled with conflict.

He watched the piece, along with seven of his classmates in USC Annenberg’s Advanced Journalism for Mobile and Emerging Platforms class.

The experimental journalism class focuses on 360 storytelling, artificial intelligence, mixed reality, augmented reality, chat bots, voice command devices and storytelling with other emerging technologies. Research is also an integral part of the class.

During the spring 2017 semester, the students in the class participated in a preliminary study that looked at how six virtual reality stories with the theme of war and conflict affect users’ emotions, specifically: Apathy, Sympathy and Empathy.

Most of the students had only experienced 360 stories on their mobile devices, and not through a headset, which triggered mouths to drop and “wows” as they realized immersing oneself through a headset was a completely different experience.

“Because all of the stories focused on war and conflict — a theme that can feel quite far away and impossible to grasp for a person who has not personally experienced the conflicts of war — it seems that generating true empathy in a viewer is rooted in the development of some shred of a personal connection — a common ground — between the viewer and the characters in each respective story,” USC student Emily Czachor said in a focus group.

The study, entitled “Headspace VR,” aimed to connect the heart to the head as students stepped inside virtual reality. It combined qualitative and quantitative data — including surveys, interviews, and data collection using neuro-technology, biosensors that tracked heart rate, and skin conductivity.

“Overall, from viewing all of these VR pieces, I learned that a VR experience through a headset makes a world’s difference than just playing that same VR piece online in a web browser,” USC student Moera Ainai wrote in a Medium post. “It is almost like an out-of-body experience in some cases. No matter how much I liked or disliked the storytelling techniques in each piece, every time I took off the gear, I would have to adjust back to the classroom setting I was actually sitting in the entire time. I felt real emotion, whether it was for Sidra or someone in solitary confinement, and that was what turned what was just a few minutes in a headset into a meaningful experience.”

Students critically reflecting on the
narrative style of the VR stories.

The results show that virtual reality breathes with story and character. For many of the participants, it was more important that the journalistic stories were narrated in the third person point of view than from a live action main character in order to foster empathy. Participants would rather virtually walk beside another person, than walk directly in that person’s shoes. Human characters were the lifeblood of the stories, according to preliminary research results.

Post survey results showed “Clouds over Sidra” had the strongest storytelling quality and biosensor data affirmed participants had a significant higher emotional intensity with it than with the other narratives.

Many shared walking alongside Sidra, the main character, and hearing her story gave a sense of inhabiting the space and better identifying and sharing in the complex emotional feelings characters portrayed. This, in return, stirred affective empathy in each participant.

“A personal narrative makes people care about the story and, thus, feel immersed and involved in the outcome of their lives. I could relate to the VR experiences and empathize with the characters’ struggle or living situation when I had a subject to latch onto emotionally,” Gabriela Vidal said.

However, the environment is an emerging leading character in a VR experience, according to the study results. It is the heartbeat of a 360 story. For example, though “Project Syria” didn’t resonate across all participants as immersive, it did have the highest emotional activation with the three narratives used to collect data with the neuromarketing biosensors.

Emotional Activation is events (something that happens) that instantaneously captured the attention. Project Syria correlation of all data shows that one moment (when a bomb goes off) had the highest emotional activation.

In addition, though many participants realized they were in a classroom sitting in a chair viewing the story through a VR headset, participants shared that of all the varied media creating the VR experience, the audio took them to another place and made them feel lost in the moment. The more powerful VR stories had spatial audio, a technique that captures sound in all directions of the environment helping to direct the viewer’s attention in the environment. From a medium perspective, audio is the key to ensuring a sense of “being there” and encourages the most emotional impact.

“As far as empathy is concerned, I really liked when the narratives were genuine and used real characters or even audio to move the narrative,” USC student Tiffani DuPree wrote in a Medium post. “For example, I was able to empathize with the characters while watching Project Syria before I even knew the audio had been taken from real events. Somehow, just listening to the audio and watching the computer-generated characters in the story made me understand the story even more.”

So if the environment is the heartbeat of a VR storyworld and spatial audio helps to build and support emotional impact, then the old adage of KISS it (keep it simple stupid) may apply. Creators have an entire toolset to pull from in shaping a story. Yet, layering additional text, animations or additional video (ie: picture within picture) should be considered as unnecessary complexities to avoid. Being more simplistic with a focus on higher production value and quality continued to appear as important to participants. Students did not relate to animated characters as much as they did to cinematic ones, where they could see human faces in a real world environment.

I felt as though reliance on graphics and animation to tell the story actually diminished its immersive quality, and served as a constant reminder to me — the viewer — that the world I was experiencing was, in fact, merely a simulation, rather than a replicated world of which I was a part,” Czachor said in a focus group interview.

Putting audience first

The study was done to better inform the news industry about audience engagement, best practices for journalistic virtual reality storytelling and to look at what motivates users to become more engaged citizens.

Many news organizations have recognized the importance of focusing on audience engagement. With this virtual reality study, we applied the Leveraging Engagement framework to examine in what ways audiences would take action after viewing VR stories. What motivated participants behavior the most was an interest in watching (entertainment), immersing themselves in the environment for a moment (immersion), and at best, creating a personal connection to who they are as a person (identification).

However, the experiences were limiting in providing enough time to really understand the topic (mastery) or material to get behind it and take action (advocacy). With VR being an emergent technology, one would think that sharing it socially with others would be a strong motivator (social connection). However, with the few participants that shared with friends, it was always in person rather than what we might assume, online via our social networks. This means two things. The sharing functionality within the VR environment needs to be further designed and developed. And, the sharing in person with friends meant an importance of watching reactions over viewing it individually in a VR headset.

After watching “Clouds Over Sidra,” Anai wrote in a Medium post that her view on the subject matter washeightened immenselyand it made her “want to look more into the crisis as well as share the stories and spread just how important this matter is.” She added, “It kills me that [I] alone can’t make a difference.”

It’s unclear that VR is enough of an experience to stand alone for viewers to take immediate action on the cause or subject shared. Each time, the participants watched a VR story, we offered a printed Take Action worksheet with reminders and follow up links for four weeks after viewing. This gave participants additional opportunities to further engage in the subject matter from watch it again, share it with a friend, read more, join, donate… all the way to connecting with the creators and distributors with write a note to download their app and watch more.

Erin discusses research with YBVR.

How we did it

The research project was led by ReillyWorks director Erin Reilly and professor Amara Aguilar in collaboration with YBVR implemented at USC’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Our methods of collecting data included surveys, video diaries, focus groups and interviews, combined with head-tracking heat maps. The study examined six pieces. Below are the six narratives with descriptions pulled from each website.

“Nearly one half of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced in its civil war and no group has been as severely affected as children. Children make up more than half of the three million refugees living in camps or makeshift housing and some news reports indicate that children are actually being specifically targeted in the violence.”

“Meet Sidra. This charming 12-year-old girl will guide you through her temporary home: The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. Zaatari is home to 130,000 Syrians fleeing violence and war, and children make up half the camp’s population. In this lyrical VR film, Sidra leads you through her daily life: Eating, sleeping, learning and playing in the vast desert city of tents.”

“Embed with Iraqi forces as they retake a city from ISIS — and experience the battle’s aftermath.”

“Shot from the perspective of people who live on the ground in Zambia, this 360-degree video provides a unique immersion into what it’s like to live there without adequate mobility, and the obstacles endured trying to navigate the country’s rugged terrain. But it also highlights one solution that is, quite literally, lifting people such as Emmanuel Chilufya off the ground.”

“What’s it like to spend 23 hours a day in a cell measuring 6x9 feet for days, weeks, months or even years? 6x9 is the Guardian’s first virtual reality experience, which places you inside a US solitary confinement prison cell and tells the story of the psychological damage that can ensue from isolation.”

“Get an inside look at an infamous Japanese midget sub and experience a stirring Pearl Harbor reenactment.”

By far, participants favored “Clouds Over Sidra” as a virtual reality story and experience. Participants felt they could relate to the main character and almost feel as though they were right next to her experiencing her daily challenges and triumphs as a refugee. The story was told using only the main character’s voice, with nearly zero text overlays or graphics. Participants did not react as favorably to the Pearl Harbor piece because many said it was a piece that could have been done as a traditional documentary, instead of a virtual reality experience. Participants also said the Zambia story was too much like a broadcast piece and “Project Syria” was too much like a video game.

“Two of the narratives, however, were not very engaging,” Dupree wrote in a Medium post. “I was happy when they were over. Zambia: Gift of Mobility and Pearl Harbor were not narratives that did well with ongoing engagement. Pearl Harbor felt like a museum piece and the storytelling, transitions, and commercials were not appealing to me. Zambia: Gift of Mobility felt a lot like a traditional broadcast piece. The 360 aspects looked like something the producers did as an afterthought.”

Coming full circle (360 degrees)

This small pilot study was to establish the methodology and test out technology with a small set of participants, so there’s more research to be done, and students want more of this type of applied learning. However, we came away with some tips to improve VR stories which correlate with core attributes to being mindful and fostering empathy.

  • STOP — This is not traditional filmmaking so stop trying to recreate what you can do in other mediums. Be open to what VR has the potential to be. You have this moment in time for the viewer to lose oneself and shift focus from real life — take advantage of it by exploring all senses and not just what the eyes can see.
  • LOOK — Allow things to be what they are and let the sense of space speak for itself. Don’t try to overproduce with different techniques or bells and whistles. For the pilot participants, less is more but focusing in on making the details of your chosen media work best is important.
  • ACCEPT — Accept this reality and be in the moment to grab the viewer’s attention and turn this moment of empathy into compassion that’s long-lasting. Without turning the experience into an advertisement with lots of pop ups, consider subtle triggers at the close during credits to extend viewer’s attention directly after the experience.
Tiffani learned many ways VR can be effective and will use
this knowledge in her future VR pieces she creates.

This pilot study gave students in the Advanced Journalism for Mobile and Emerging Platforms class the opportunity to look at virtual reality critically from a user experience point of view. They also were trained in 360 storytelling and were able to apply what they learned as audience members to their storytelling in the field. We hope this preliminary study will help others interested in VR storytelling to do the same.

“From viewing all these VR pieces, I have learned the many ways 360 and VR can be effective in telling a story and portraying aspects of a story that viewers were not able to experience before. I learned that if done correctly, a VR piece can really tell a powerful story or leave the viewer thinking about what they had just experienced,” Dupree wrote in a Medium post.

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Read the full “Headspace VR” report here.

For more Medium posts from the course, visit: https://medium.com/journalism-and-emerging-digital-innovation

Photo credits: Amara Aguilar



Erin Reilly

Erin Reilly is a consultant helping others to understand and strategize about storytelling, engagement, play and learning through emergent technology.