VR & Empathy – A Small Rant

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.


One thought on “VR & Empathy – A Small Rant”

  1. I appreciate your rant 🙂 Hype is for suckers. For more unexplained claims, see Chris Milk’s TED talk where he claims that his co is using VR to create empathy without any example or explanation what so ever.

    My question about the affordances of VR is more about quality than quantity, not so much about whether VR is a _better_ tool than collaborative narrative, gaming, performance, video (all of which I use in my creative practice), but if / how immersive media might be used in any interesting ways that are different from these other forms. Every medium has the potential to message and persuade differently; and all media, all technology must be continually questioned, as both tools and socio economic context evolves.

    So, moving past the fact that hype is lame, and there’s lots of snake oil claims happening, do we see any interesting potential for this range of forms? AR, fully immersive VR, 360 degree video on phones (all of which are different anyway).

    Your point about who we are designing for is interesting; I would also suggest that we combine that with _when_ we are designing for. What you’re saying about VR (which is very true now) was also said about the internet and cell phones in 1995. Designers working with emergent technologies need to consider that kind of time frame.

    Also, the blue eyes brown eyes experiment was reported to have changed racial bias of the 2nd graders who participated, immediately afterward, and tracked into adult hood (not sure exact number of years). Why? There are many forms of participation, some more nuanced than others.

    Random fact: both teen mom shows were produced by my neighbor Morgan Freeman (the director not the actor).

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