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Building Empathy through Virtual Reality


Date Posted Aug 21, 2015

Most of us have heard some version of the following quote:

To understand another person, walk a mile in their shoes.

The quote is a warning about judging another person. It asks us to take a moment to understand where another person is coming from. In a way, it’s asking us to step out of our own personal bubble, made up of our life experiences, and step into another.

It asks us to have empathy with another person and try to see things from their point of view.

And with recent technological advances, we can do this easier than ever before.

BeAnotherLab is a research team conducting experiments in which one person experiences the world through another person’s eyes. They made headlines last year with their Gender Swap experiment in which a male and female each make the same (slow) movements. Through the combination of a virtual reality headset and camera, they see those actions through the other person’s eyes.

They have several other interesting projects, including exploring immigrant stories, generational divides, and allowing physically challenged people see themselves dancing. The Verge has a very good article about participating in one of their experiments.

I’m most interested in their projects that help people empathize with one another. While the Gender Swap experiment touches on this, I think The Machine to be Another explores this idea even further.

By blocking the sight and hearing of the viewer, and replacing them with the voice and perspective of the performer, the viewer gets immersed in the feeling of being the other person. I believe this can build empathy and understanding between different groups of people.

I think BeAnotherLab, and others exploring this area of research, have barely started to explore the possibilities this heavy immersion can offer. I cannot wait to see what happens as this technology continues to mature.

What do you think? Could a deeper sense of empathy help solve some of the issues that society faces? Are you interested in virtually walking a few miles in other people’s virtual shoes?


Michael "Maka" Gradin managed OIRT's help desk for six years but has moved on to CodeCombat.com. For more about Maka, please visit gradin.zdh.com.



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