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From Within: Why VR And Empathy Go Hand In Hand

From Within: Why VR And Empathy Go Hand In Hand

“TV shows and books can elicit emotions, but you always realize you’re watching TV or reading a book. In VR, you are so immersed in the technology that lizard part of your brain doesn’t recognize you’re in VR and just accepts this is where you are now.”

I’m speaking to journalist and author David M. Ewalt on a topic on the mind of every VR enthusiast and critic – how the innovation can transport us into worlds in a way unlike any other medium to date, and thus can be the ultimate empathy machine. Ewalt is the author of the forthcoming Defying Reality: The Inside Story of the Virtual Reality Revolution, and he’s enthusiastic about what VR has done so far and where it’s headed.

David M. Ewalt

“VR pokes a deeper part of your brain,” Ewalt says, “And the more real the film is, the more emotions you’ll experience, whether joy, fear, laughter, so on.”


As many VR insiders may know, VR can change how we see each other, and thus have the potential to be a life-altering technology for the better. One of VR’s key strengths is tapping into an emotional wellspring that may only be grazed by the other media such as TV, film and literature. When you’re so embedded in an environment, especially when you have control over where you go and what you see, the experience can be so immersive you might actually shed a tear under those Rift goggles.

A Powerful Tool For Understanding

Look at how charities and government agencies are using VR for their campaigns. The UN and Unicef teamed up to create a documentary about refugees two years ago called Clouds Over Sidra. Viewers are dropped into the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan and their guide is Sidra, a twelve-year-old Syrian girl who is just recognizing the limits and promise of her new home.

“It would be ideal to bring potential donors to the actual site but this is the next best thing,” says Deana Shaw, vice-president of direct and integrated marketing at Unicef Canada. “But the exciting thing about VR is that we can bring that experience to non-donors too to build awareness about the plight of children worldwide.”

Shaw adds that when viewers have more control over what they see, by looking up, down or side-to-side, “more senses are firing and the film is more memorable.”

Socrates Kakoulides, a senior producer for the UN, says in an interview he loves that more advocacy groups are “embracing VR to make it a humanistic art form.”

Besides helping lead the team to produce Clouds Over Sidra, he was also behind Waves of Grace, a VR film aiming to draw attention to prejudice toward Ebola survivors. “There is lots of stigma around ebola survivors,” Kakoulides notes, “and we wanted to bring that proximity, that closeness, to our film’s subject so the viewer can feel more in tune with what she’s gone through.”

Aaron Koblin 2
Aaron Koblin

Ewalt notes an important point about VR: “You’re not an outside observer. You are there with someone, or you’re one of the participants.”

Pulling From Within

Aaron Koblin, co-founder and CTO of VR storytelling company Within, recognizes the value of VR as an empathy-inducing technology, telling me: “[With VR] comes a sense of vulnerability: you feel the dangers in a more visceral way, and you feel the presence of other people as though they’re real and therefore can more easily connect with and relate to them – which of course are the seeds of empathy.”

He adds: “Virtual reality is this incredible way to tell stories, and just like we made the shift from radio to TV to movies, I think VR is really the next natural step for the future of entertainment.”

Nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman identified four elements of empathy: See the world; appreciate other people as human beings; understand feelings; and communicate understanding. Looking at VR films such as Clouds Over Sidra or even Valen’s Reef, which educates viewers on conservation challenges, those films tick off the empathy boxes.

Visiting Another Time And Place

In a VR film, designed to create an intimacy to a subject matter we may not be familiar with, we can see the world literally through the lens of someone deep in the trenches. It may be ugly and uncomfortable, but we can’t look away.

We also experience the corollary symptom of appreciating what other people are enduring, such as seeing the devastation of a region through the eyes of Sidra. That teleportation to her world aligns us to her fears and desires, without the filter of a third-party telling us what she’s living through.

If we are willing to be open-hearted and open–minded while immersed in VR, then we have the capacity to recognize someone’s feelings in a deeper way compared to other media. Once haptic technology is fully realized, we’ll soon be to able to reach out and touch a documentary’s environment to be even more ensconced in the trauma or joys on display in the captured footage. When more of our senses are engaged with the film, it’ll be hard for us not to sympathize with the plight of the characters.

The last characteristic of empathy – communicate understanding – is asking the viewer to take the next step once the goggles are off. While Unicef didn’t have any data on increases in donations after Clouds Over Sidra was released, Shaw says its awareness-building feature was invaluable, especially since it stood out from other projects that could be pulling at our attention.

Ewalt offers a caveat, though, to this discussion of VR building more compassion among viewers. “I don’t think VR can create empathy where it doesn’t exist. If you are an empathetic person and want the world to be a better place and can watch a VR film like Sidra, it’ll bring out empathy within you that already exists. But if you’re not empathetic, not even the most convincing video will work for you. VR magnifies what’s already within the audience.”

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