VR and Empathy

Any new technology faces an interesting task: how can it shed the novelty and assert itself as a useful medium for human development? It took motion pictures a while to go from carnival attraction to storytelling medium. The internet had to make the jump from kitschy home computer add-on to a serious repository of information. VR has found itself in the same situation. Early gamers used to dream of this tech, and systems like Nintendo’s Virtual Boy even gave consumers a taste of what VR could be. But now it’s trying to find its true niche in our digital world, apart from its gamer fantasies.two hands joining puzzle pieces

Jeremy Bailenson is leading the charge. A recent profile by Wired explores the efforts by the Stanford Academic to use VR as a tool to increase empathy among people. Think of some VR simulations as a PSA, but more immersive and efficient. Bailenson believes that VR avatars are a great vehicle for this empathetic expression. In one study, users watched themselves (via the avatar), cut down a tree. After a researcher “accidentally” knocked over a glass of water, those who experienced the simulation used 30% fewer napkins than those who just read about the harm of deforestation.

But there are some blank spaces in the empathy research. One is the question of how long this empathy boost will last. For a few hours? A week? Researchers will be following up with test subjects in six months intervals to get a better read on the lasting effects. That question leads to another— will we feel as empathetic as the novelty of the VR medium loses its luster? Now, we perceive it as an entirely new experience. But imagine several years from now, a world where VR interactions are the norm. Would we become desensitized to the lessons the medium tries to teach us?

One of the most interesting problems highlighted is the notion that “anything that can change human behavior for the better can also change it for the worse.” For all of the good VR can do, some of the tactics for changing behavior could backfire. Several years ago, a study from Bailenson’s lab found that users who were given a darker-skinned avatar expressed negative stereotypes of black people. The point of the exercise was to put the user in another’s shoes, so to speak. But if this kind of experience primes negative perceptions about other groups, labs will need to reevaluate the process.