I am incredibly skeptical about claims of creating empathy through VR experiences on multiple levels although on further examination, it seems that I’m more so skeptical about the way it has been heralded and accepted as more of a game changer than it actually is.
My first skepticism with the VR hype is that there seems to be an assumption that our empathy and ability to “walk in another persons shoes” is derived almost solely from a visual experience. As someone who learns and internalizes information (and maybe emotions) through the physicality of things (touch and movement), this seems like a stretch to me. How much more does VR let us walk in another person’s shoes than seeing an intimate play or participating in a LARP? I mean, teen pregnancy rates dropped dramatically after a couple of shows (16 and Pregnant, Teen Mom) around that topic came out on television and that makes no overt attempts to put viewers in the shoes of the pregnant teenagers. Yes, VR (meaning oculus, cardboard, morpheus, etc.) can be paired with other sense creators, but as a piece of technology and how its commonly referred to in popular culture, it is mostly limited to a visual experience. This is especially true given that no one has really fully addressed physical controller interaction in a satisfactory way.
The second is that I’ve found that many of these projects over promise. Yes, perhaps a virtual experience makes me think about an event or perspective in a different way and yes, that is the first step to actionable change. But I’ve seen news articles covering VR and empathy and projects make pretty grandiose claims of the impact that their project(s) will have on actions or larger systemic change (this is also one of my gripes with “games for change”). I think this has been improving, and I’m particularly interested in the Stanford VHIL studies because they’re actually applying some sort of scientific method of evaluation to this field of practice.
I often question VR in the context of the larger user experience. Duration of user interaction is one question I would pose: Can empathy be created in a medium in which the average use time is probably around 3-5 minutes? Although it is improving, the graphic quality still lags behind what I would call a photo-realistic environment (and maybe you could argue that this isn’t even necessary since our brains can make those kinds of cognitive leaps). Furthermore, as of yet, VR is not mainstream accessible, which also kind of limits its potential and brings up all kinds of questions for me about WHO is getting to experience another perspective? Maybe there should be a little more critique around not only how we represent and simplify certain perspectives, but also for whom we are designing.
I think the final critique I would express about using VR to create empathy and change perspectives is there’s the danger of getting too self-congratulatory about how we’ve helped someone step into another person’s shoes. There are limitations to this. For example, even if I dressed up like a homeless person and sat on the street asking for money (which is more VR than the VR we’re generally talking about), that role playing experience would still be limited by the fact that I can easily change my clothes and go back to my comfortable living. In the same way, if I saw through the eyes of someone of a different skin color, that doesn’t mean that I can understand what it’s like to be black or white or hispanic. Again, I think there’s some merit to VR in that it is a good introduction to this idea of empathy, but I worry that it has become trendy to make claims of what it does or can do beyond this incremental knowledge/awareness shift.