“Most of us don’t spend the mental energy required to imagine what it is like to sleep out on the street every time we pass a homeless person.”Jeremy Bailenson, Experience on Demand (2018)
Virtual Reality. It’s just another medium, right? There is nothing special about it, right? It’s simply 3D video with no lasting impact on humans, right? …right? What if the story about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl changed the minds of millions of people around the world?
That is exactly what happened when Chris Milk’s film, Clouds Above Sidra, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015. It is an eight-minute documentary about a Syrian refugee girl named Sidra, who has lived in the Za’atari camp in Jordan for a year and a half. She narrates over the film, describing the camp, as simple scenes comprised of children playing soccer, learning in school, and spending time with families, are played. There are no fancy cuts, no edits, no music, and no VFX. Despite the lack of modern documentary filmmaking techniques, this film elicited a large emotional response from everybody who wore the Samsung Gear VR devices. That’s right: this film was shot entirely with 360˚ cameras and is only viewable through Virtual Reality headsets.
In 2015, Virtual Reality was just becoming readily available. Clouds Over Sidra became the launching pad for Virtual Reality to become more than just a different way to play video games. VR technology can be the “Ultimate Empathy Machine.” Jeremy Bailenson, author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do, also experienced Clouds Over Sidra and applauded the film for its unique sense of connection between the audience and the children featured in the film. Not only is there a remarkable sense of interaction between the viewer and the children (as the children come close to and mess around with the 360˚ camera), but the spatial awareness of the camps is much more amplified when viewing through VR compared to any other medium. “80,000 is a heart-numbing statistic until you are standing in the middle of this enormous makeshift in the middle of the desert,” Bailenson says about the realism the film brings. No other viewing experience can make you feel like you’re actually there. Virtual Reality has the power to make you fully understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes, and what it feels like to live in a tragic environment, even if it is for eight minutes. “We’re showing [this film] to the people that can actually change the lives of the people inside of the films,” Milk said at his 2015 TED Talk presentation. Milk was not wrong in believing that Virtual Reality experiences can change the world and the way humans connect with one another; according to the United Nations, Milk’s VR film caused the number of fundraiser donations to double.
Jeremy Bailenson understands the potential of VR experiences as a tool for empathy more than anyone. Bailenson claims “one of the best ways to foster empathy is the process of ‘perspective-taking,’ or imagining the world through another person’s point of view.” He has been hooked on virtual worlds ever since the late 1990s, and upon arrival to Stanford in 1999, Bailenson created his own virtual mirror and invented the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). Bailenson has conducted Virtual Reality studies and its correlation with empathy since 2003, but his most recent experiment, “Becoming Homeless,” published in October 2018, provides a glimmer of hope that Virtual Reality technology really can be the “Ultimate Empathy Machine.”
It is a lot harder to imagine being in someone else’s shoes rather than physically (or in this case, virtually) experiencing daily life in their shoes. Bailenson set out to prove this, as he hypothesized that participating in a Virtual Reality perspective-taking (VRPT) task would elicit a higher empathic response towards a stigmatized group than participating in a narrative-based perspective taking (NPT) task. Multiple studies about Virtual Reality and its relationship with empathic responses have been recorded over the previous decade, so why perform another one when results are already available? Two reasons justify the creation of this experiment: 1. VR technology is rapidly changing and becoming more accessible to the public, and 2. Sample sizes were very low (below 30 per experiment), demographics never expanded beyond college students and the subjects were only surveyed through one week beyond the experiment.
How do Bailenson and his colleagues further legitimize their experiment? Their final sample size included 117 participants, aged between 15-57, who were surveyed up to eight weeks beyond the study. With this amount of diversity in the sample, Bailenson can expect to conclude whether or not VR can empathically affect people regardless of age, gender, or race.
There are many stigmatized groups that deserve empathy, such as racial minorities or those with disabilities or illnesses. The chosen target for this experiment was the homeless population because their lack of receiving empathic connection and because “it applies to a larger population, as, under specific circumstances, anyone can become homeless.” Now that the social target was chosen, an immersive virtual environment (IVE) needed to be made in order to successfully conduct the experiment. Bailenson and his colleagues at VHIL created a three-part interactive virtual story called “Becoming Homeless.” Each part in the story has you experience a step in the path to becoming homeless. First, you lose your job and are sitting in your apartment when you see an eviction notice on your desk because, despite selling most of your things, you couldn’t pay your rent. Next, you are sitting in your car because you are forced to live out of it. You get stopped by police and lose your car because living out of your car is prohibited. Lastly, you are on a bus because that is the only place you can find shelter. There are some other homeless people on board who can tell you their experiences, while other people might try to steal your belongings. 61 participants got to experience this interactive story in VR and got to see what it was like for them to become homeless, while the other 56 were given a first person written version of the same story. They were told to simply imagine what it would be like to have all of the following situations happen to you and did not get to experience the situation inside a world built to accompany the story. This proved to be effective, as significantly more VRPT participants felt more spatially present (they felt they were truly in their setting) than the NPT participants (significance means there is enough evidence to make a conclusion about any piece of data or measurement throughout the experiment).
What other factors proved to be significant in favor of the VRPT participants throughout the experiment? Quite a few, actually. Immediately after the experiment, those who participated in the VRPT condition felt significantly more empathic towards the homeless and were significantly more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing in order to help the homeless, when compared to the NPT participants. Across the eight weeks since the experiment ended, participants from both groups experienced a deterioration in their attitudes towards the homeless, but the attitudes of the VRPT participants deteriorated significantly slower, to the point where most participants are still holding positive relationships and views towards the homeless community. Bailenson and his VHIL colleagues concluded that VRPT “led to more self-reported empathy and personal distress, and resulted in more positive, longer-lasting attitudes toward the homeless and significantly more signatures supporting helpful initiatives than the NPT condition.” Although this study did provide favorable results towards VR’s effect on empathic responses, why stop there when you can perform a second study with more conditions and a larger sample size?
That is exactly what Bailenson & Co. did. In their second study, they sampled 439 participants and introduced two more categories alongside the VRPT and NPT conditions: a desktop experience, where viewers watched the same thing VR participants experienced, except it would be played on a screen and decisions would be made using a mouse and keyboard, and an information intervention, where participants just read a packet about the homeless and were not asked to perform any perspective-taking tasks at all. Bailenson ran the same “Becoming Homeless” experiment and followed up with the participants after eight weeks, just like the first study. Two noteworthy results were made. First, in terms of the proportion of participants who felt more spatially present in their respective conditions, VRPT was significantly higher than desktop, which was significantly higher than NPT. This means VHIL can conclude that each condition provides a significantly different level of spatial presence, depending on how immersive the condition is. The other result is that VRPT participants were significantly more likely to sign a petition to aid the homeless compared to participants from any of the other three conditions. VHIL can conclude that IVEs and VR experiences can significantly promote positive empathic behavior in the form of signing petitions in support of others when compared to less immersive experiences.
What now? What is the future of Virtual Reality? Is Virtual Reality really the “Ultimate Empathy Machine?” It is not quite there yet, but it is certainly on the right track. Projects such as Chris Milk’s Clouds Over Sidra and VHIL’s “Becoming Homeless” experiment highlight the potential of Virtual Reality and the impacts it can have on the real world. What if VR can eliminate racism by forcing users to take on the perspective of someone with a different skin color? What if VR can eliminate eating disorders and other mental illnesses in people simply by entering them into a virtual world where they can get along with everyone else and not have to worry about their body shape? VR has the potential, but that is its issue: all it has is potential. It is too expensive for the everyday consumer and not enough experiments have been run in order to determine whether VR can actually create these impacts. VR will be substantially beneficial towards our society. Though the technology is still very young, tell everyone you know about VR, because it’s about to change our lives forever.
Bailenson, Jeremy. Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Herrera, Fernanda, Jeremy Bailenson, et al. “Building long term empathy: A large scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective taking.” PLOS, 17 Oct. 2018.
Lamm, Claus, Jeremy Bailenson, et al. “Virtual reality perspective taking increases cognitive empathy for specific others.” NCBI, 30 Aug. 2018.
Milk, Chris. “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine.” YouTube, uploaded by TED. 22 Apr. 2015.