What would the world be like if everyone understood each other better? Might it lead to an end to online trolling, cyber-bullying, or discrimination? Could it make us look more favourably on those that are different to us, perhaps see a reduction in sectarianism or even eradicate real-world conflicts. Empathy is the key here – if we could be more empathetic, the world would be a better place.

This third post in our VR with Purpose series explores how VR can engender empathy, and how this potentially provides an opportunity to shape a better world.

Feeling Empathy

Before VR came along, the best way to ‘walk a mile in someone’s shoes’ was through documentary filmmaking, providing a strong visual sense of someone else’s experience. VR goes one step further by putting the participant inside that person’s experience.

Award-winning filmmaker and VR pioneer Chris Milk says VR is “the ultimate empathy machine.” Chris believes that VR films “allows us to feel empathy for people that are very different than us in worlds completely foreign from our own.” He’s used documentary filmmaking techniques enhanced by VR technology to tell human stories of suffering and triumph with Clouds Over Sidra, about an experience in a refugee camp  and Waves of Grace, which is about an Ebola survivor in Liberia. VR, he says, feels like real life because you feel like you’re right in the midst of the action. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting at your desk or in your living room, the action feels real enough that you can’t help but connect emotionally with the subject

Journalist Nonny de la Peña uses VR to tell emotive stories, like her Hunger In Los Angeles video, which shows the gritty, emotional experience of people standing in line at a Los Angeles food bank, desperate for food. The line is so long and the heat so intense that it induces a medical crisis when one of the people collapses in a diabetic coma. “We showed up at Sundance with Hunger in L.A. and we didn’t know how people were going to react,” says Nonny. “But people were just bawling. They were crying. I can tell you that it was the most emotional I’d ever seen people be in any of the pieces I’d worked on.” VR inspires people to care because of what she calls the “duality of presence” – that you can be in one place (your home or office, for example) but in another place too, one which feels extremely real, even though your brain consciously knows the difference between the two.

This ability to transport you to a foreign place is deftly handled by The Guardian’s then-groundbreaking VR journalism 6×9: A virtual experience of solitary confinement, where the user can experience the harrowing effects of being confined to a tiny living space (6×9 refers to the size of the claustrophobically small cell) and the emotional toll that takes on the body. To experience the loneliness and isolation first hand is both alarming and provocative

Using empathy to change behaviour

Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) says that research shows virtual reality can have a deep effect on behaviour. VHIL’s Empathy At Scale research projects have shown demonstrable results in VR’s ability to produce empathy – for yourself and others and their research has proven that watching a 65-year-old avatar of yourself will spur you to save more for retirement, and that seeing the world through the eyes of a colour-blind person will make you twice as willing to help them than if you just imagined what life is like for a colour-blind person.

Changing behaviour is the holy grail for many disciplines such as advertising, psychology and medicine, and empathy is critical to this. After all, if you don’t understand other people how can you possible develop emotions that are strong enough to change behaviour?

Traditional diversity training is complicated and controversial with some participants saying they feel singled out and that training is counterproductive. The NFL, a cornerstone of American sporting culture, saw multiple uses for VR. Over and above their initial use of VR for players to practise training routines and thus memorise the plays better, they embarked on the 2016 empathy training programme to boost the effectiveness of diversity training in their workplaces.
There’s a VR application for climate change practitioners too. One VR project aims to get people to understand the impact climate change and human consumerism is having on the world’s oceans. But when ocean acidification is both highly removed from most people’s lives, as well as a slow deterioration process, it’s not easy getting an emotional investment from people to create any lasting behavioural change. But with VR, you can ‘become’ the coral. The project gives viewers the perspective of the affected reef, including the loud and painful audible crack of the coral breaking for added emotional impact. The “dual presence” of an immersive VR experience, says researcher Jeremy Bailenson, allows you to see the sped-up deterioration of the coral reef in a visceral way.

Engendering empathy with VR

Which of us has actually soared through the air over the Himalayas? Or taken the time to try to understand what it’s really like to be homeless, or manage a complex health condition? Our natural empathy and imagination can only take us so far, but VR has the power to take us all the way, and deliver deep, profound and long-lasting insights into another person’s circumstances and situations.

VR can make you feel and has the potential to shape a more humane, tolerant, informed and educated society. As former US President Barack Obama put it: “Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”, and VR is perhaps the most powerful means to do deliver it.

Header image credit: Guardian’s 6×9

Phil Stuart

Phil is PRELOADED's founder and Executive Creative Director. He is passionate about the possibility space created by emerging and converging technologies, and inventing new forms of play with purpose.