A VR experience was awarded an Oscar at the 2017’s Academy Awards for the first time. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, the man behind box office hits Birdman and The Revenant, the VR short movie reveals the personal experiences of refugees.
The six-and-a-half minute long Carne y Arena – meaning virtually present, physically invisible in Spanish – is currently being exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In a statement about the exhibition, Iñárritu explains his use of VR is “an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame, within which things are just observed, and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”
By placing the viewer in someone else’s shoes, VR is a powerful tool for conveying first person narratives. Iñárritu’s is not the first film to make use of the technology to inspire empathy: in 2015, Amnesty International created a VR experience that transported viewers to the war-devastated streets of Aleppo in Syria. According to the charity, the film helped increase donations by 16 percent.
Similarly, in 2016, the UK’s National Autistic Society and London agency, Don’t Panic, launched a VR movie to help the public better understand autism. Now, the fact that a VR experience has received such a prestigious award suggests that the medium will increasingly be recognized as its own art form.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a special prize to honor the production, as there is currently no specific category for films made in VR. The last time a special award was created was to commend John Lasseter’s breakthrough animation Toy Story in 1996. This later led to the creation of an official animation category. As more acclaimed directors explore the with the technology, the same is expected to happen for VR.