VR is the ultimate empathy machine - but is it yet?

It might seem counterintuitive, considering you wear a bulky head mount display, but virtual reality brings people closer indeed. At the Mobile World Congress Mark Zuckerberg talked about a new generation of family videos, actually being in the moment when your child takes her first steps. That's just the surface, although arguably the most promising from a commercial standpoint.

Virtual reality can develop empathy in ways no other technology can

Less then a year ago Chris Milk's presentation at TED Vancouver created a lot of excitement around virtual reality storytelling. His first documentary, the Clouds Over Sidra tells the story of a Syrian refugee girl living in Jordan. Chris even brought the film to Davos, persuading key people in the business and political world to put on a VR headset.

His second documentary, Waves of Grace, is about the recent Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, and it's been produced in partnership with the UN. Both are available in the Vrse app.

Standing next to the hospital bed of a Liberian child is incredibly powerful and emotional indeed, and helps us to better understand the topic. The immersive experience of being in the middle of the shot is very different from watching it on TV, and you should absolutely check them out. On the other hand, while the medium is new, the underlying ideas are not. It does develop empathy, but it's not a breakthrough.

We think the breakthrough creating the real ultimate empathy machine comes when you stop being a third party passively consuming content, and you start seeing the previously unseeable and feeling the previously "unfeelable".

Different perspectives

Experiencing a situation from very different perspectives helps us to empathise with all sides. This is important when dealing with notoriously difficult issues like peacekeeping in a war zone.

Take Gaming for Peace, a VR game being created by the Trinity College Dublin together with a dozen of other universities and military experts from different countries. The game, developed by Haunted Planet in Ireland and scheduled to be released in 2018, is a peacekeeping mission simulation placing the user's avatar into conflict zones in different roles: in the shoes of different nationalities, genders, etc. Army personnel can react to situations with much more empathy by experiencing the reality of all the parties involved.

Another example is Perspective; Chapter I: The Party, a VR movie about a date rape filmed from the perspective of both the perpetrator's and the victim's.

Empathising with people living with medical conditions

We covered how VR can change healthcare education and early detection last week - the possibilities here are endless.

Virtual reality can simulate a wide scale of visual, auditory and somatosensory disorders. It's quite easy to reproduce colour blindness and other visual disorders in VR, but they can change the life of parents, for instance, whose child is living with such a medical condition. Hearing problems are a little harder to replicate, but it's possible.

Simulating somatosensory disorders is probably the most interesting field. Imagine a virtual reality game or story in which you don't recognise familiar faces, or you have issues recognising body parts. Yes, it is very scary, but this is the reality of quite a few people. Experiencing it first hand is very different from passively watching a documentary.

Walk in other people's shoes

The Machine To Be Another might be an art project, but it's easily the most powerful VR tool in developing empathy. In the Machine you are no third part viewer, nor you are represented by an avatar. It puts you right in the body of a different person, so you experience their situation from a first person perspective. This different person, called the performer, is following all your movements, so you the experience is fully immersive.

Their most interesting experiment is probably the Gender Swap. If you ever wanted to feel how it feels to be a person of the opposite gender, well, now you can. It is mind blowing, and it's something only possible thanks to virtual reality.

We don't want to sound like a hippie from the 60s, but the moment you experience the refugee crisis or the Ebola outbreak first-hand in a fully immersive way, that's going to be the moment when the world becomes a better place.