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Can Virtual Reality Make Us Care More?

Created by leading VR filmmaker and poster boy Chris Milk in partnership with the UN, it is one of the most widely distributed VR films to date. The film was praised for helping boost donations at a fundraising conference by over 70% to $3.8billion.

"The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit." - Barack Obama

We seem to be getting worse at understanding one another.

Or at least caring on a wide enough scale to do anything about it.

A cursory look at current global events doesn't do much to refute this.

Racial tension is sparking in the US provoked by a spate of police shootings of unarmed African Americans and the lingering threats of Donald Trump's wall.

European politics continues to move away from the middle ground, with a troubling resurgence of the far right amid the uncertainty of "Brexit".

Meanwhile, the disturbingly steady beat of extremist terror continues to drum across the world, arguably the greatest example of deep seated mutual misunderstanding facing our generation.

In contrast, VR has been described as the "ultimate empathy machine".

It gives us a way to virtually put us in someone else's shoes and experience the world the way they do.

As Jeremy Bailenson neatly summarises,

"if you think of an intense experience you've had in your life that has changed the way you think or behave, and if you believe that VR can feel real, then you can start to understand how VR experiences can change the way you think or behave."

So, if VR can create realistic enough experiences to evoke these reactions - could it truly make us care more?

Could VR hold the key to resolving our most damaging behaviours?

Or is the empathy experienced just another marketing fad?

Or worse, could this become a malevolent tool to manipulate us in more powerful ways than we've ever previously known?

What's happening today?

"Clouds over Sidra" is a high profile example of a VR documentary that puts potential donors into the shoes of a young Syrian refugee.

Created by leading VR filmmaker and poster boy Chris Milk in partnership with the UN, it is one of the most widely distributed VR films to date.

The film was praised for helping boost donations at a fundraising conference by over 70% to $3.8billion.

More directly, UNICEF's David Cravinho has seen the film half the time it takes to convert a potential donor to making a donation.

Similarly, UK VR company Visualise have created several high profile VR films for NGOs, including "Forced From Home" for Medicens Sans Frontier (MSF) - which also profiled the plight of refugees from Syria and Honduras.

For Henry (Visualise's founder), VR offers a "unique ability to emotionally connect with people".

As he puts it, "The fact that you feel transported and in another location is the first step but then seeing someone in front of you, see the whites of their eyes gives the similar sense of connection to if they were standing right in front of you."

There's a risk, however, that these initiatives become the latest novelty marketing tool available only to those with UN size budgets rather than creating anything with more longevity.

Encouragingly, VR is being experimented with on less high profile social issues and campaigns

The National Autistic Society (NAS) recently used VR as part of their broader "Too Much Information" campaign which aims to explore the chaotic reality of autism and raise public awareness of the condition

Whilst general public reaction was positive, the real step change was for families who found they now had a practical tool to use in daily interactions to help explain to friends, teachers and others what their loved ones were experiencing.

Behind all this is the emerging scientific evidence from Bailenson's Stanford lab.

They've conducted research studies where people have been made older, color blind and even superheroes. In each case, people's thoughts and behaviours in the real world alter as a result of these experiences.

And its clear Bailenson believes this has much further to go,

"What's surprising to most is that even with fairly modest graphical realism and imperfect limb tracking, participants can still feel as though they have become the avatar they are embodying."

Inevitably, the "ultimate empathy machine" still has a few kinks to work out.

One of Bailenson's earlier studies found that placing people into darker-skinned avatars actually activated negative stereotypes about black people rather than building understanding.

Similar studies have also demonstrated that experiences such as this can trigger racial stereotypes due to the priming effect.

There's also the issue of creating long lasting behavioural change as opposed to fleeting alterations of perspective.

All scientific evidence so far suffers from the common experimental limitations of small sample sizes and minimal long term data.

Bailenson's lab is looking to address this right now through an "empathy-at-scale" study which will collect data from a diverse sample of 1000 participants.

So could VR make us care more?

There's no doubt VR can create visceral moments of empathy that at least for a short period afterwards make us care more.

Already, it's helping us donate more, think more carefully about making future savings and be more mindful of conditions like autism.

But we're still a long way from having something resembling the mechanistic certitude of an "empathy machine".

Right now, it's simply another experimental tool for those seeking to persuade and enact change.

Given what's possible today, I'm most excited about targeted interventions that actively tackle our inbuilt cognitive biases.

Imagine how VR experiences could be used as a priming technique in peace negotiations and conflict resolution.

So my hope is, for every VR empathy film that pulls the heartstrings of glitzy festival audiences, there's also an experience put in the hands of powerful individuals, making complex decisions, during real-life meaningful situations.

Only then might we start to see VR truly become the ultimate empathy machine.

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