Virtual Reality and Empathy

With the development of immersive technologies, we are now able to experience things that previously could only be imagined in science fiction. Kim Arazi, innovation sparker and Women in Tech advocate, explains how virtual reality is giving people access to new experiences and insights that can help bring us together.

Want to trek through the Andes? How about going face-to-face with a shark? Fancy a trip to another planet? Now you can; simply put on a VR headset and you’re there, climbing snow-capped peaks, scuba-diving off the coast of South Africa, or in a rocket ship to Mars.

This is all very exciting and opens the door to many new possibilities, both from a business perspective and from an experiential one. Industries such as travel, real estate and interior design are already using mixed-reality platforms to give their customers a close-to-real experience, such as Thomas Cook’s ‘Try Before You Fly’ VR experience.

The gaming sector is investing heavily in augmented and virtual reality, as early adopters of new technologies, much of the current immersive content is being tailored for entertainment purposes. We can see an example of this in the ‘Playtest’ episode of the futuristic sci-fi television series Black Mirror, that creates a pervasive experience using perfectly-timed jump scares with each with a manifestation of fear or trauma from the participant’s past. While appealing to gamers, adventure-seekers and horror fans, the episode demonstrates how immersive technologies can be used in more sinister ways.

Importantly, virtual reality offers the opportunity to feel new experiences in a unique and meaningful way, impacting our mindset and ultimately our actions. “We are entering an era that is unprecedented in human history, where you can transform the self and experience anything the animator can fathom,” says Jeremy Bailenson, Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Another example of the affect VR can have on human behavior was demonstrated in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where participants were instructed to manoeuvre a vibrating, haptic “chainsaw” to cut down a tree in a simulated forest. Using the tool virtually, VR participants were able to feel what it is like to cut down a tree. Afterwards, the same group were recorded using 20% fewer napkins to mop up a spill than the participants who simply read a passage describing the tree being cut.

Virtual reality can be a powerful vehicle for helping us better understand each other and generate empathy with people from different genders, social groups, ethnicities, backgrounds and belief systems. It’s the closest we can get to walking in each others’ shoes.

Be Another Lab takes this notion to the next level through their virtual body-swapping experiment, The Machine to be Another. In this performance art piece, participants sat in a chair wearing Oculus Rift headsets and swapped perceptions with a performer, allowing them to connect with someone of a different age, gender, nationality or physical ability on a deeper level. This experiment has been used by psychologists, neuroscientists and researchers to explore issues like mutual respect, gender identity, physical limitations and immigration.

Film producer Chris Milk said recently in his TED Talk, “Virtual reality connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perceptions of each other.”

Two humanitarian immersive experiences worth highlighting include Clouds Over Sidra and Charity: Water.

Clouds Over Sidra is a virtual reality film co-created by Milk for the UN. The film puts participants in the shoes of 12-year-old Sidra, a girl who has lived in the Libyan port of Sidra for 18 months with thousands of other refugees. The film was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos to generate empathy with refugees among viewers and to convey the urgency of this humanitarian situation.

Charity: Water, a non-profit organisation, brings clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries. This is another example of a charity that is harnessing virtual reality to evoke compassion through immersive experiences. Here the public can experience first-hand what it’s like to live in a village with contaminated water. Charity:Water promotes greater awareness and empathy to encourage donations.

As immersive technology advances and becomes more integrated into our lives, it will come with its own set of challenges which we will need to address. However, it is up to us, as technologists and content creators, to ensure we use this powerful medium in a mature and responsible way that can unite rather than separate us.

Kim Arazi is an innovation sparker who though her company IN3 works at the intersection of the arts, business and technology to inspire us to think in new ways. She is a Women in Tech advocate and is passionate about Tech for Good and the impact of new technologies on human behaviour.

To learn more about what Digital Catapult are doing in immersive technologies click here

One Comment on:
“Virtual Reality and Empathy”

  1. Arie Arazi says:

    This VR stuff sounds like fun. If I feel happy like on cloud nine, do I just have to put on the VR glasses and watch me virtually on cloud nine? Would I be able to send my wife ten dozens of virtual roses every week? Can I virtually book a dream vacation and be there?
    I would like you to arrange for me a lunch on the moon but make sure to bring me back home on time for dinner.
    Can virtual reality replace undesired reality?
    Can I order two sets of VR glasses that will allow us to be happy for the rest of our lives?

    Virtually sincere.

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