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Can Virtual Reality Make Us More Human?

Filmmaker and futurist Chris Milk explains VR's potential to change the world, in a newly released TED Talk.

by Beckett Mufson
Apr 22 2015, 8:45pm

Clouds over Sidra, The Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where the film was shot. Credit: VRSE.works /Future of StoryTelling

“Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture," jokes award-winning filmmaker Chris Milk, but in his 2015 TED Talk, released today on YouTube, he does it anyway. Virtual reality, he explains, can change the world.

From career milestones including Kanye West and Johnny Cash music videos, to interactive installations and web experiments, and even a brand new virtual reality production company called VRSE that he launched earlier this year, Milk makes it his personal mission to bring the story as close to his audience as possible. When traditional films ("a group of rectangles played in a sequence") failed to bring his audience close enough, he began experimenting with interactive art. "What I was trying to do was build the ultimate empathy machine,” he explains. 

While lauded artworks like Wilderness Downtown, an interactive music video for Arcade Fire, and The Treachery of Sanctuary, an interactive tripych on display at The Creators Project DUMBO in 2011, brought people closer to the proverbial frame, his new foray into virtual reality pulls them all the way through. "It connects humans to other humans in a profound that way I’ve never seen before in any other form of media,” Milk states.

The game-changer was Milk's submission to Sundance 2015, Clouds over Sidraa heartbreaking story of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee whom Milk, collaborating with VRSE.works and the United Nations created for VR using a 360-degree camera. Then he brought the story of Sidra, her family, and all the other refugees forced to flee their homes to the World Economic Forum in Davos. “It’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate," Milk says. "We become more empathetic. We become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.”

Now, Milk and VRSE are producing more immersive documentaries, from India to Liberia, which they eventually plan on taking to the UN. “We’re showing them to the people that can actually change the lives of the people inside of the films," he explains. "And that’s where I think we just start to scratch the surface of the true power of virtual reality.”

Screencap via

You can see Clouds Over Sidra yourself in the Sensory Stories exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image. See more of Milk's work on his website, and check out our previous Chris Milk coverage below.

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The UN’s First Virtual Reality Documentary Puts You Inside a Syrian Refugee Camp

Chris Milk’s "The Treachery of Sanctuary" Unveiled At London's Digital Revolution

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Chris Milk's Home For Postcards To Our Past Selves