In the next moment, I'm standing in a busy market between stalls, facing a crowded dirt-packed road bustling with people and laughter. To my right, I'm momentarily transfixed by a man peeling carrots over a wide container on a table. In the dim light under the market's metal awnings, a woman carrying an empty plastic pitcher brushes past me, and I turn all the way around to see a table covered in samosas ready to be fried, a shiny metal pot smoking from the fire below. I can almost smell the dough frying.
Another subtle blink and I find myself inside a small building, standing in front of a group of seated children. Vibrant unframed paintings of animals and landscapes cover the walls, overlapping. Each child concentrates quietly on painting a tree with dark branches.
"I see creativity where there is no limitation to the creative mind, where beauty can be found and recreated anywhere and by anyone," Ochieng continues.
Despite my open mind, this isn't the tough, tragic tour I expected. And for Vakilitabar, that's the whole point.
He led production on this virtual reality experience, called "My Beautiful Home," through his new lab PathosVR. He wants to take the technology beyond simply walking in someone else's shoes, seeing what she sees. He believes that strategic storytelling combined with subtle brain stimulation can turn us into more empathetic beings. When we see people as fellow humans rather than a label, we're able to tackle global problems more effectively, he argues.
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For "My Beautiful Home," he added a 3 Hz frequency to the audio, which some researchers think could help stimulate the part of a person's brain involved in feeling empathy. Vakilitabar said he's not sure whether adding it actually works, but I definitely felt something through the headphones. The effect was akin to the bass thrum at a concert, only more pleasant.
His narrative aims to go further than other VR experiences that are designed to create empathy. Vakilitabar collaborated with Paris-based visual effects producer Maxime Parata on the final cut. In each scene, Ochieng challenges the viewer to see the beauty she sees, the strength, the energy, the feeling of community. When I ask about this approach, Vakilitabar cites the classic Pygmalion Effect study, where higher expectations of school children led to better academic performances.
His VR isn't about pity. It's about respect.