Ahead of the Curve: Virtual Reality and Empathy

Walk a mile in my shoes,” sang Joe South, back in the (highly overrated) peace and love days of 1969.

If you could see you through my eyes
Instead of your ego
I believe you’d be, I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind

“Empathy,” the four-dollar word for what Mr. South was singing about, is a key value of humanism. Maybe the key value, along with reverence for the scientific method. As Roy Speckhardt explains in Creating Change Through Humanism,

Empathy is the capacity to recognize and share feelings experienced by others. Our human history of moving away from violence can be explained in part by this virtue, for as people came to know each other better with the advent of cities, transportation opportunities, and online communications, we empathetically realized that we all strive to avoid suffering and seek happiness—not only for ourselves, but for others as well.

There has been a lot of movement the past year or so toward using the next technological step beyond “cities, transportation opportunities, and online communications” to further enhance our capacity for empathy. In an editorial for the Clock Online, Lindsey DeRoche describes Virtual reality (VR) as allowing a user to “experience an immersive, sensory-driven, artificial reality via special goggles, headphones, remotes, etc.” Some Wall Street analysts project that within a couple of years VR will reach between $20 billion and $40 billion in sales.  The God industry is jumping in with both feet. One wrote in Christianity Today about using VR for “personal devotions,” while advertising an application called “VR Church.” I can hardly wait for titles like “Crucifixion! The VR Experience” to come out.

The intensity of the VR immersion seems like a natural for sparking empathy. It lets you see, hear, and to a limited extent even feel the same things as its central subject, in some cases wandering through a world at your own pace. Kathryn Bigelow, the director who gave us The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, entered a VR documentary called The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes in this year’s Tribeca Immersive showcase, profiling the courageous men and women who try to protect endangered elephants in the Congo. Why did she choose the undoubtedly more expensive VR medium over traditional film? “I think that the simple answer is empathy,” she said. “Not that film doesn’t create empathy—of course it does.” But well-done VR offers an intimacy that traditional cinema cannot match.

VR apps have been designed to let users experience being a cow, or even coral under siege from increased ocean acidity. Curmudgeons like me are a little dubious about software that purports to make me feel like coral. But at least someone, somewhere, is trying. Experiences like “Surviving Syria,” a VR documentary that follows refugees fleeing the region’s ongoing civil war, put us through the hardship of others. As C. T. Casberg describes it, “Strapping on a headset and watching a film is not the same as enduring physical pain. It is, however, an act of surrendering the self for the sake of another, a valuable exercise in itself.”

Another vendor already sells an experience called the “Autism Simulator.” “In just one minute you will acknowledge feelings experienced by a person with autism in a regular café…easily distracted by elements and inputs in the world around that a normal person filters automatically.”

There is at least some evidence indicating that the greater intensity of VR can make a difference. In 2011, Stanford researchers asked participants to maneuver a vibrating, haptic “chainsaw” to cut down a tree in a simulated forest. After wielding the tool, the VR group used 20 percent fewer napkins to mop up a spill than the participants who merely read a passage describing the tree being cut.

Nothing, though, is without its detractors. Some say that using VR to enhance empathy isn’t pure enough. “If you won’t believe someone’s pain unless they wrap an expensive 360 video around you, then perhaps you don’t actually care about their pain,” one of them sneered. How this expert knows what people believe, or what people care, is left unexplained. The logical conclusion is that anyone so loutish as to not already “care about the pain” of VR subjects isn’t worth wasting an expensive 360 video on. Another essay complained that VR “invites the user into a visual and aural immersion, without the user facing any of the consequences of being immersed in that space.” Unlike, say, a book, a movie, or any other method of communication known to humanity.

In my more pedestrian view, humanity has seen a series of technological advances in the capacity of one human to communicate experiences to another. Oral speech, written speech, printing, moving pictures, broadcast, the internet—each one improves the ability to convey ideas and sensations between humans. VR is another positive step along that path. It will be also be used for lots of frivolous purposes ­– if you want to make some money, invest in VR sex—but it can and should be used to pull us together.