It’s a truism of history that in a time of upheaval and change, empathy is the first virtue to go. Our current moment is no different. This weekend’s sweeping immigration ban, signed by the Trump administration to block people from seven Muslim-majority countries entry into the United States, is just the latest in a regrettable pattern. It’s visible in the hyper-partisanship in our politics, eroding trust across socioeconomic groups, and the rise of fear-based extremism worldwide: tribal instincts are getting the better of many of us.
Many are pointing at the tech sector as the cause of our empathy-anemic moment. And, while we wouldn’t advocate dropping tech from your life and heading for the woods just yet, these critics do have a point.
Whether it’s the proliferation of fake news, “filter-bubbles” that wall us off from anyone with different views, or the working-class labor displacement caused by industry disruptors like Uber, big tech has seemed out of touch with the effects of its products on broader society. Now, with the election of an American president who rode economic angst and xenophobic rhetoric to victory, even Silicon Valley’s own are calling for a more compassionate and thoughtful approach from the sector.
We believe VR has the power to buck this trend. It’s counterintuitive at first –strapping on a headset doesn’t seem particularly empathetic–but bear with us.
Virtual reality, and its promising sibling augmented reality, has arguably made its way across the novelty gap, and it will be part of all our lives soon. As of last July, investment in the sector had topped $2 billion in just 12 months, outpacing the investment that marked the PC, web, and mobile transitions. The world’s biggest consumer-tech firms–Google, Apple, and Facebook–are already racing to win pole position in the market.
Leading media outlets are already deploying VR to immerse their audiences in content. The New York Times partnership with Google Cardboard leverages 360-degree video to transport subscribers to the front lines of global events. We at Presence worked with Discovery to build one of network TV’s first virtual reality experiences, bringing the toothy stars of Shark Week floating into viewers’ living rooms.
But VR at its best can do more than immerse: it lets people appreciate new perspectives. And it’s already being harnessed to get at the root of some of society’s toughest problems.
Researchers at Stanford are running “virtual shoes” experiments in which people “viscerally embody avatars” that encounter various forms of prejudice, based on age, race, economic status, and disabilities. Then, subjects are tested for changes in empathy levels toward these groups. After positive initial results, the team is now partnering with neuroscientists to demonstrate how these experiences–which they quite clinically call “self-other merging”–can physically change the brain to reduce bias.
Social innovators are tapping into VR to deepen citizens’ identification with disadvantaged people and places. After screening its documentary on a 12-year-old refugee in Jordan, Clouds over Sidra, in 360-degree video, UNICEF more than doubled its annual fundraising haul. Pencils of Promise, which builds schools for children without access to them, used the same technology to show what learning feels like before and after access to a decent learning environment. More recently, an immersive experience called Notes on Blindness stole the show at the Tribeca Film Festival, by putting the “audience” in the mind’s eye of someone who is blind. 3D sound was the star here, showing that VR’s power transcends fancy visuals.
But empathy-driven VR isn’t just for advocates and academics, it has value for business, too.
For one, it can help employers build the inclusive workplace that lets talent of all stripes thrive. Discrimination is a bottom-line issue for today’s companies; sexual harassment alone drives millions of dollars in productivity losses a year, through absenteeism, morale loss, and legal action. Achieving sensitivity on issues of gender, race, or disabilities is easier when teams are placed into firsthand simulations in which they feel the perspective of the victim. And as organizations reach across national borders, cross-cultural training can go virtual, too.
VR can also help business grasp what life is really like for the people they serve, building their effectiveness in meeting their needs. Designer tools like behavioral studies, user interviews, and ethnographic research, while powerful, can miss key insights on people’s pain points. They’re also only used by designers. Perspective-based VR can bridge this gap. In an effort to improve bedside manner, doctors in the UK were immersed in the perspective of a patient entering the emergency room. They were shocked by the effect of seeing their own unfeeling body language.
As VR technology improves, the same method could be applied across whole organizations, enabling everyone to take a human-centered approach to their work.
Imagine if Pampers could tap VR to allow all its employees to walk through a day in the life of a single mother of a newborn. Or if White House Presidential Innovation Fellows supporting the Department of Veterans Affairs could immerse themselves in the struggles of life as a vet with disabilities. How about health care companies that actually experience the constant interruptions of life as a Type-1 diabetic? The egocentric executive in the corner office might not listen to what designers tell him, but we’d bet he’d be willing to dive into a virtual experience.
But can these technologies really build our affinity toward people and planet? Hard science has already proven it can change our minds, literally and figuratively. People with psychological disorders, from cockroach phobias to post-traumatic stress disorder, have shown demonstrated improvement through VR and AR therapies that allow them to face their fears in low-stakes simulations.
People’s brains process immersive VR and AR differently than traditional media. By achieving the sensation of presence, these experiences can be logged by the brain as memories, which can in turn change one’s values and behavior. In a recent control group study, subjects were obliged to cut down a virtual tree, and were then tracked on their use of paper in their daily lives. People who went through the virtual experience conserved more in the real world, and continued to do so, compared with those who read reports or saw movies on the topic. It’s this dynamic that lends VR its potency in helping people overcome deeply rooted, destructive behaviors, whether phobias, racial prejudice, or wasteful consumption.
Are we saying that solving a societal crisis of compassion is as simple as strapping on a headset? Of course not. When it comes to boosting the better angels of our nature, there are no silver bullets.
Still, across the media, the social sector, and business, those that are tapping VR’s empathy superpowers are moving people, and in the process separating themselves from the pack. It’s a heartening trend in a challenging time. Maybe by stepping out of our world, we can take a step closer to understanding each other in it.
Will Byrne is an Ashoka Fellow and a Forbes 30 Under 30 social entrepreneur. He served as founding CEO of Groundswell, and is now Director of Strategy at Presence, a digital product firm. Dale Knauss is the virtual and augmented reality lead at Presence.