Virtual reality’s killer app could be empathy

Step into someone else's shoes

The new wave of virtual reality devices are finally delivering on their promise. It can be difficult to appreciate if you haven’t used a great headset like HTC Vive or Oculus Rift yet, but the tech is pretty much ready for the big time. The main criticism is that the software isn’t up to the same standard. As immersive as the newest VR tech is, there isn’t a “killer app” that will convince people they need it for themselves. You can still play great games and watch great movies without a VR headset, so why get one? What can it really do differently?

Developers and artists are interested in the possibilities and are experimenting to come up with novel uses for the tech. We’ve seen news ways to have fun including a beautiful graffiti simulator. Some experiments involve the use of VR in helping with depression, treating paranoia, or even getting over fears of public speaking. Clearly there’s a lot more to VR than shooting zombies.

It must be said, VR zombies are scarier than other game zombies. With a good VR headset and 3D sound, your brain can be fooled into thinking it’s all real. Rationally you know you’re using VR, but your brain reacts to visuals and sounds like they’re genuine. With this in mind, maybe entertainment isn’t the most promising application of VR; perhaps the killer app is empathy. Whether it comes to activism, education, gaming, or even sex, VR could help people see things from another perspective in a way no other tech can.

Journalists and activists are using VR and empathy to communicate narratives such as 6×9, an experience that puts you in solitary confinement. Thousands of people in the US are put into solitary confinement for all sorts of reasons and some end up with psychiatric disorders associated with the treatment. You can never truly empathise with their situation without experiencing the real thing, but VR is the closest people can get. It’s one thing to read about what these people go through and another to see and hear it all around you. Sure, the experience might be fleeting but it hits home when you see their environment with your own eyes.

Just as advertisers are excited by VR’s potential for helping potential customers experience their brand, activists and journalists are using the technology to bring people closer to the issues that matter. Chris Milk’s Clouds Over Sidra was made in collaboration with the United Nations to give people a better perspective of what refugees go through. The film has you take in the sights and sounds of a Syrian refugee camp alongside Sidra, a 12-year-old who has been there for over a year already. It’s a powerful use of VR to show what daily life is like for the refugees with the hopes that viewers will find it easier to empathise and want to help.

“Shame on you! God’s going to destroy you in the lake of fire and you won’t be smiling then!” Another great example is Across The Line, a VR experience made in collaboration with Planned Parenthood that shows you what it’s like for a woman to arrive at an abortion clinic in the US. The experience mixes documentary footage with 3D game design elements to have you arrive at and then enter the clinic while protesters hurl abuse. What’s really terrifying is that it uses real audio from actual protests, so it really hits home just how real the threat is and the fear these women feel when getting a legal and safe abortion.

Obviously an experience like this could be traumatic in real-life and the VR experience could be the same. With our senses tricked, it might be a really bad idea to put viewers into extremely harsh situations in VR. It’s a risk because VR really is great for empathy and does make you feel like you’re there experiencing it. It’s that same reason that VR has so much potential for making the world a better place if we use it wisely.

I recently spoke with Cindy Gallop from MakeLoveNotPorn about how VR can help us empathise with one another. Her view was that VR used in real-world sex can instil empathy in a way that no other technology ever can. That alone is a killer app in her mind. Partners using VR during real-world sex have reported improved relationships because of the unique perspective it delivers. Empathy improves relationships.

It would be nice if we could empathise more easily without relying on VR. When people are struggling in refugee camps for years, or being held in solitary confinement for being gay, couldn’t we feel for them just because they’re human beings? If that were true then more people would listen and act when these stories appear in the newspaper or on TV.

VR won’t give empathy to those who have none. It’s not an empathy device; it’s a tool for immersion. But with the right software, that very immersion can be used to help people empathise. If we can tap into that, VR could have a killer app that justifies its existence in our homes.

Main image: Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/Knight Center, distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license