The Key: Abstraction, embodiment, and proper distance within the virtual home

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Holohan, Conn
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Film and Screen Media, University College Cork
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The emergence of virtual reality (VR) humanitarian filmmaking as a genre over the past ten years has generated a large body of critical debate around the efficacy and ethics of VR as a tool for generating empathy towards marginalised communities. Whilst numerous studies have indicated the potential for VR to impact empathy levels of end users, there have been recurrent critiques of the power dynamics of VR production, as well as the value of empathy as a means of producing social change. Lacking in these discussions has been a detailed consideration of VR aesthetics and the extent to which stylistic strategies impact audience positioning. Through the example of the animated VR experience The Key (Celine Tricart, 2019), this article will explore experience design in the context of ethical debates around humanitarian VR. As an interactive, narrative experience that addresses themes of loss and displacement, The Key can be productively analysed in relation to both VR ethics and wider cultural understandings of home and belonging. Responding to ethical debates around proximity within immersive experiences, the article will examine aesthetic strategies within The Key for ensuring what Roger Silverstone has labelled “proper distance” between the user and the virtually represented space. Through its use of visual abstraction and simplification, as well as the limited physical interaction it affords with its virtual world, the virtual home of The Key will be understood as a site of resistance to universalising narratives of home, one which invites critical reflection on the factors that determine our access to shelter.
Virtual reality , Empathy , Documentary , Aesthetics , Home
Holohan, C. (2024) 'The Key: Abstraction, embodiment, and proper distance within the virtual home', Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, 26, pp. 141-153. doi:
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