Today, Senior Content Strategist, Michele, takes a look inside the virtual reality empathy machine, and how charities are using virtual reality to bring more awareness to their campaigns.
Inside the Virtual Reality Empathy Machine
We are bombarded with so much news about the appalling things happening in the world. Our social media feeds are absolutely awash with stories from Aleppo, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and across all parts of the world where human suffering is going on. It should be heartbreaking to us, but unfortunately, because of the sheer amount of this news we are bombarded with, many of us eventually just tune out and scroll on.
Even those doe-eyed kids on the Save the Children adverts make less of an impression than they used to. We are just numbed, overexposed. We cannot engage with those images in the way that we could engage with those suffering were they right in front of us. And that’s not because we aren’t caring humans, it’s just basic psychology.
Charities know this. They know that they don’t get as many donations as perhaps they should do, simply because people cannot engage with the images and articles in a way that brings the true sense of the problem home to them.
But now, virtual reality is showing great potential. It is being increasingly regarded as an ‘empathy machine’, which can help people to put themselves in others’ shoes. I wrote a bit about this a while back, after a fascinating panel discussion I attended at Future Fest 2016. At the time, I was most interested in how the VR ‘empathy machine’ could be used to break down prejudice and discrimination. But more and more news is emerging recently demonstrating how virtual reality can be used by charities and news outlets to allow people to fully experience the challenges of others across the world for themselves.
Virtual Reality Empathy for Helping the Homeless
The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University is run by Jeremy Bailenson. He has been studying virtual reality for years, and is increasingly finding evidence that virtual reality can be a more effective medium for evoking empathy than other media sources. That is, provided it is done in the right way.
The Lab is currently working on a study using virtual reality to see if it can help people become more empathetic towards the homeless. In the experience they’re putting together, the participant experiences losing their job, their home, and their possessions:
“You start out in your home and you find out that you’ve lost your job,” Bailenson says. “You struggle to make rent and you use your body to pick items in your home to sell to try to make your rent so you don’t get evicted.”
From there, the participant is, in fact, evicted. She goes to live in her car, before that is towed, then tries to sleep on a bus where she must guard her bag all night long from thieves.
After the experience, participants are asked if they’ll sign a petition for housing for the homeless. The study compares how many people sign after the VR experience to how many sign after just reading some material.
Another example of a charity using virtual reality for empathy is the International Rescue Committee, whose project ‘Four Walls’ gives participants the chance to experience the plight of Syrian refugees in the Lebanon. The experience is available for Google Cardboard devices, as well as the more sophisticated VR systems, such as the Oculus Rift. Check it out for yourself here, or check out the video below as an introduction:
Both The Clinton Foundation and Amnesty International are also exploring the ways they can use the VR empathy machine to bring awareness of their campaigns.
Virtual Reality Empathy Could Have a Sell-By Date
Of course, the idea is that after experiencing a virtual reality simulation of a crisis situation like those mentioned above, you’ll be more inspired to act. However, we already know how desensitised we get to media over time. What’s to say that virtual reality empathy is any different?
Paul Bloom, who is a professor of psychology at Yale University, is author of a book named Against Empathy. The title might sound a bit harsh, but in it, Bloom does make some pertinent points.
“Empathy — feeling the suffering of other people — is fatiguing. It leads to burnout. It leads to withdrawal,” Bloom says. The best way to understand another person, as Bloom points out, is to read a good, old-fashioned novel.
Unpopular as the thought may be, I’m inclined to agree.
Despite these downsides to the virtual reality empathy idea, there is still potential. However, perhaps it should be in more subtle ways. Fewer people are going to go out of their way to put on their VR headset just to experience suffering. If, however, it’s woven into an engaging narrative, it’s more likely to elicit an emotional response. As part of a drama series, or in a game, for example.
Virtual reality can be used for many different functions, and its uses within entertainment are not limited to gaming. We can expect to see the virtual reality equivalent of Netflix and Amazon Video series rising in popularity in coming years, and some are already being worked on.
Nonetheless, I’m with Paul Bloom when it comes to empathy through storytelling: nothing gets you deeper inside the consciousness of another than novels. So head to your local library, and give yourself a break from the tech for a little while!
What are your thoughts about virtual reality empathy?
Let us know by dropping us a tweet, or with the hashtag #AskTDMB
Michele Baker is the Senior Content Strategist at TDMB Tech, where she explores a range of content strategies for, and writes extensively on, all aspects of technology. Her main interests centre around the social, cultural and political implications of Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies.
Outside of writing and being a tech boff, Michele is also a generally clumsy person who falls over a lot, and is obsessed with dogs, shoes, and old vinyl records.
You can catch up with Michele on Twitter, to chat about virtual reality, or any other aspect of tech.