Immersive media and social change: The ‘empathy machine’ is dead, long live ‘emotional geography’!



Since 2014, immersive media storytelling has gained significant attention, with technologies such as 360° video providing unique first-person experiences, leading to the emergence of immersive journalism and documentaries. Some view immersive media as an “empathy machine” for fostering social change by creating strong connections between the audience and the issues portrayed. This paper critically examines this claim through a practice-based research approach, exploring five socially-driven immersive media projects from 2018-2020 in various countries, and interviewing 21 experts, both scholars and practitioners. The insights derived from this research provide an innovative conceptual framework that encompasses socially-driven immersive media productions, moving from initial empathy towards a more comprehensive concept and phenomenon native to the medium, referred to as “emotional geography”. This framework aims to shed light on the affective dynamics of immersive media in relation to social change, and offers valuable insights for future research, productions and critical discussions on the growing, emotionally-charged digital media ecosystem driven by advancing technologies.


immersive media, virtual reality, empathy, social change, emotion, 360-degree video


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Author Biography

António Baía Reis, Carlos III University of Madrid

António Baía Reis is a researcher, educator, and artist born in the charming city of Porto, Portugal. With an interdisciplinary education, ranging from International Relations, Media and Communication to the Arts, he has a BA in International Relations (University of Minho) with a focus on cultural diplomacy, an MA in Communication Sciences with a focus on arts and cultural communication (University of Porto), and a Ph.D. in Digital Media with a focus on immersive media, social change, and creativity (University of Porto and Stanford University). His research, teaching, and creative activities are largely interdisciplinary, combining areas such as digital and emergent media, communication and performing arts, and with a strong focus on immersive media (VR, AR, MR), film, participatory and collaborative practices, practice and arts-based research, creativity studies, innovation in education, and social impact. He is currently a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Passau (Germany), developing work at the crossroads of media and communication, arts, new technologies, and innovation in education. At the same university, he has founded the Future Media CoLab, a collaboratory focused on immersive media and related technologies. He is also an invited researcher and digital media artist at the Experimental Laboratory of Intermedia Art of the University of Madeira (Portugal) and Agency_VR - Medialab en Matadero (Spain). Moreover, he is the co-founder of the XR theatre collective La Cuarta Pared VR [The Fourth Wall VR], as well as the director and editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Cinema & Territory and a member of the editorial board of the journal Media Practice and Education. Outside academia, he has relevant professional experience in the field of corporate and cultural communication in diverse areas within the creative and cultural industries, and regularly acts as a senior consultant, instructor, and keynote speaker in areas such as immersive media and all things "metaversical", digital and performing arts, and innovation in science communication. Within the arts, he is an experienced actor and pianist, with professional experience in theatre plays, film, voice acting, and live music performances, but also a digital media and performance artist, with a strong focus on theatre and performance in virtual reality, 360-degree filmmaking, experimental media and performance installations, participatory art projects, and artivism.




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