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Is Virtual Reality the Ultimate Empathy Machine?

This article by WIRE about empathy interests me a lot because it shows how VR really can contribute to the way we connect with other people


Philippe Bertrand has seen through the eyes of a child, a woman, a stranger, a close friend, and a disabled man. How? Virtual reality. As one of the eight artists in the international art collective Be Another Lab, Bertrand spent months building and testing the technology behind The Machine to Be Another, a performance art piece that’s been traveling around the world. Oculus Rift-donned participants can sit in a chair and swap perception with a performer. Using a microphone and a wearable wide-angle web camera, the performer mirrors the participant’s actions. A participant, then, may open his eyes and see another person’s face in the mirror. He may look down and see a woman’s hands. Or pick up a pair of shoes and hear the spoken “thoughts” of a performer through the headphones.

In just the past month, the staged program—part performance art, part experiment—has been used by psychologists, neuroscientists, and researchers in six countries to explore issues like mutual respect, gender identity, physical limitations, and immigration. “It’s disorienting—an experience you have never had in your life,” Bertrand says. “Afterwards, you now know someone in an intimate way that helps you connect.”

VR’S POSSIBILITIES EXTEND well beyond the familiar gaming and sales applications. Now it’s becoming the ultimate empathy machine. “We are entering an era that is unprecedented in human history, where you can transform the self and [you can] experience anything the animator can fathom,” says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “The research shows it can have a deep effect on behavior.”

Bailenson’s team is running a research project called “Empathy at Scale” that explores ways to design, test, and distribute virtual reality projects that teach empathy. Experiments include whether seeing a 65-year-old avatar of yourself prompts you to save more for retirement. (It does.) Or if seeing the world through the eyes of a color-blind person will make you more willing to help him or her than if you just imagined it. (Again, yes. Twice as willing, in fact.)

Others are using the technology to influence people’s perceptions in other ways. Film producer Chris Milk worked with the United Nations to create a virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra

which puts you inside a Syrian refugee camp and follows a day in the life of 12-year-old Sidra, a girl who has lived there for 18 months with thousands of other refugees. Wearing Oculus Rift, movie watchers might feel as if they’re sitting right next to Sidra: move your head and see children walking, turning their heads to look back at you.

“[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 perception of each other,” Milk says in a TED Talk. “That is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”

Yet some people worry that such immersive technology, if not executed carefully, could backfire. Dropping viewers into a violent experience that’s too shocking or horrific might alienate them and make them not want to return or get involved, says Sam Gregory, a Harvard University adjunct lecturer on human rights. Or if people have no way to take action and help after seeing another’s plight, then virtual reality could end up being just another form of poverty tourism. “It’s confusing immersion for empathy,” Gregory says.

Unlike other projects that use scripted film or digital avatars, The Machine to Be Another relies on live performers and some on-stage ad-libbing to generate that deeper understanding between people. A performer can see and watch and mirror the movements of the participant. In some cases, a participant is handed an apple or an object at the same time as a performer. So they touch and see the same thing. A participant can drive the actions and interact with the “narrative” of the performer. And the two can also meet afterward and continue that understanding, Bertrand says. “Afterwards, you say, ‘I want to know more about your life.'”

The experience can be powerful and some participants have said that the performer’s own voice becomes their own stream of consciousness. Yet for other users—as in the case of MIT research associate Ainsley Sutherland—the experience falls short. Sutherland tested out the project and says virtual reality is great for creating new experiences of subjectivity, perception, and sociality. “I think ’empathy’ is the wrong objective because it assumes too much about the power of visual immersion,” she says.

Bertrand says Be Another Lab plans to create more experiences of empathy that use no technology at all. “We don’t need technology to feel empathy,” he says. “The question is, ‘what would the world be like if we could better understand each other?'”

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