As individuals, we understand the world through our own eyes and walk through it in our own shoes. Yet, at the same time, we can feel empathy for one another.
By simulating the perspective of others in our own minds we can experience the similarity of our respective emotions, while keeping in mind what is their experience, and what is ours (Decety & Jackson, 2004).
These acts of everyday mind-reading lay the foundation of successful interaction and collaboration, because they allow us to understand how the perspectives and emotional experiences of others relate to our own, enabling us to act from a place of greater understanding.
Different media, such as literature, theatre, music or movies, have allowed us not only to empathise with others whom we encounter immediately in our everyday lives, but also with fictional individuals at distant times, places and in different social conditions. By depicting their thoughts and feelings, these media allowed a glance into the life, world and experience of a faraway other.
Now, for the first time, there is a new medium that could revolutionise how we use technology to relate meaningfully with others: Virtual Reality.
VR: An empathy machine?
Unlike its predecessors, VR has certain distinct characteristics that give it a unique potential unparalleled by previous media. By combining several sensory inputs (such as sound, three dimensional vision and touch), it allows for a deeper immersion than other media.
Not only does this provide a rich, multi-sensory environment for us to perceive in various ways, it also offers us the opportunity to interact with our environment and determine at least some movement within it. Unlike many other media (such as books and film), it takes into account and makes use of the physical body of the user.
Lastly, while most other media are consumed within and next to an actual reality, virtual reality replaces the user’s perception of actual reality with a virtual alternative. Since VR addresses several of the sensory inputs of the user, it lets us temporarily forget about the reality in which our body remains.
This temporary exclusion of actual reality allows us to feel present in a virtual environment and avatar beyond what we know to be possible in our actual reality (Novacic, 2015), which is why users can experience the body of a Barbie doll as their own, or even accept an additional limb as part of their body (Yong, 2011, on the work of Ehrsson).
If you could swap bodies…
At BeAnotherLab, researchers are starting to make use of this potential. By designing experiments that merge VR with real-time performances and neuroscience research protocols, their aim is to spark empathy by allowing users to see “themselves in the body of another person” (Bretrand et al, 2015).
An actor mimics the user’s actions in real time and shares his or her story. Audio and video are then transferred to an Oculus Rift headset that allow the user to experience the first person perspective of the actor with only minor delays.
In one scenario, users take on the perspective of Merce, a wheelchair user, who tells them a story about her experience of daily life and experience of having limited access.
In another scenario, two users of different genders are both fitted with a VR Headset and a head-mounted camera, and their visual input is crossed-over. If they manage to synchronise their movements closely enough, both of them can experience the perspective of the other as they interact.
Since this kind of perspective-switching creates an awareness for and interest in the other, these experiments have highlighted and confirmed VR’s potential to spark empathy between people with different life experiences.
Using VR to create a better world
Just as importantly, empathy elicited through VR experiences does seem to change negative interpersonal attitudes (e.g. by experiencing the world through the eyes of a black avatar – Peck et al, 2013), and research has found that experiencing virtual realities can also lead to prosocial behaviours (Rosenberg, Baughman & Bailenson, 2013).
While research on VR as a tool for empathy-building and prosocial behaviour is yielding some exciting results, several questions still remain open:
If empathy necessarily requires the ability to distinguish between one’s own experiences and those of another while experiencing something virtually from the perspective of another, does VR go beyond empathy in some cases, catapulting users into a virtual world as if they were immersed into it themselves?
How can VR deal with the possibility of experiencing discomfort and anxiety in a virtual environment if this separation between empathised and personal experience gets entangled, and the user feels as if he or she is part of the virtual environment themselves?
How can VR enable users to feel empathic enough to be motivated to act pro-socially without overwhelming them?
And how long does emotional and cognitive empathy for others sustain after a virtual reality experience?
Can attitudes and behaviours be changed on the long-term?
More research on the topic will hopefully illuminate these questions and fine-tune VR for sparking empathy… In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about the topic, you can check out these resources:
- Chris Milk explains why he thinks that virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine in his Ted Talk.
- 3dar cast a dystopian image of how VR might fail to further empathy and disconnect its users from reality in their 10 minute short film.
- Both the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford and the BeAnotherLab do interesting research into the potential of future applications of VR that Jennifer Alsever introduces in this WIRED article and this article by Ainsley Sutherland.
- Roman Krznaric wrote an insightful and enjoyable book, Empathy, why it matters and how to get it, in 2015, a topic he also explores in this TED talk.