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Can immersive experiences teach us to empathize?

VR makes it possible to experience the world, and our humanity, from an entirely new perspective.

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It’s been said that the information age is ending, and the experience age is dawning. For Kent Bye, creator and host of the Voices of VR podcast, virtual reality is one of the clearest representations of that transition.

“Computing technologies are like the new printing press of our era,” says Bye. “Just like books were able to capture information and knowledge, it’s the computing technologies, particularly VR, that are able to capture dimensions of the human experience.”

Bye points out that with traditional media, like film, television, and print, we are passive consumers, but VR challenges us to actively experience what it means to be human. This ability to shift from observation to experience—to be able to walk in another’s shoes—is what buttresses the claims that VR has enormous potential as a tool to increase empathy.

RYOT was one of the first content development companies to demonstrate the link between VR and empathy. The VR project Mind at War, for example, created in collaboration with digital artist Sutu Eats Flies, takes viewers through VR paintings that depict the memories of Iraq War veteran Scott England.

Jake Sally, RYOT’s head of development says, “VR allows viewers to empathize with Scott’s horrific journey because they are able to physically walk through his memories, a tangible totem to his experience, that mere 2D content could never replicate.”

Since Mind at War, RYOT’s stable of VR projects has grown steadily. The primary goal of immersive storytelling at RYOT, according to Sally, is to create an experience that provides a unique perspective of a particular story that resonates with the viewer at the personal level, but he notes that the most powerful stories also “allow that personal connection to hit a much deeper societal pulse as well.” Ideally, he says, users will want to reflect long after they’ve put down the headset.

“The open question and the challenge,” says Bye, “is to what degree can you capture the human experience and embody that within a virtual reality experience so you know what it feels like to be another person.”

Encouraging perspective taking, inducing body transfer, measuring bias or empathy after VR experiences, exploring the process of empathy, and trying to quantify the human experience—these are exactly the types of questions being studied by researchers like Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). And according to VHIL’s research, VR consistently outperforms other types of media for increasing empathy and reducing discrimination.

“VR’s greatest strength is its ability to induce presence,” according to VR analyst J.C. Kuang, of Greenlight Insights. “It can reproduce the illusion of place, body ownership, and a sense of agency.”

With such a wealth of research supporting the marriage of VR and empathy, it’s easy to understand how it could be a very effective training tool in a variety of environments from student populations to athletes to internal corporate trainings.

“Empathy-oriented training [in VR] is something we have seen implemented successfully in the past,” says Kuang, “and can continue to expect in the workforce as XR platforms expand and hardware prices come down.”

Training companies like STRIVR,  co-founded by Bailenson, make use of cutting edge technologies but in effective, targeted ways. “The goal is not to port all lessons into VR,” says Bailenson, “but to use the intense experiences VR can offer as teachable moments, ones that provide motivation for learners to engage more deeply in substantive material, and to facilitate novel and difficult conversations around the topic.”

We gain empathy and a more comprehensive understanding of the human experience by embodying multiple and seemingly incompatible perspectives. A particularly powerful asset of virtual reality may be that it helps us learn to deal with or even reconcile cognitive dissonance, a skill that has been signaled as increasingly important in the coming age of experience.

But in order to fully inhabit these perspectives, we need technology that reproduces the human experience in a way that feels as real as possible. These technical and technological questions are paramount for creators like RYOT, “The biggest challenge facing the new generation of immersive storytellers is the staggering rate of change,” says Sally. “We're excited at what 5G will enable, from artificial intelligence to create more realistic characters to procedurally generated content based on the users biometrics—this is the beginning of a new age of story.”

It seems that we are also at the beginning of a new age of experience. Fortunately, VR is just the medium to help us navigate it.

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