Virtual Experiences, Real World Change: Empathy in #VR

“Ewwww, look at it.”

“It’s so… gross.”

As you turn around in the center of the circle, looking at the people surrounding you — it takes a moment to hit: they’re talking about you. An involuntary wave of embarrassment washes over you, until you remember: this is not real.

It is the Other Space VR experience, a fun piece of VR storytelling via 360 video available on the Jaunt app. Despite the fact that you logically know that you are looking at a phone mounted on your face, it is still an emotional experience. If pixels shaped like humans can embarrass you, what else can they do?

Empathy is the ability to sense others’ emotions and go beyond sympathy-- we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of another. In the 1990s mirror neurons were discovered and well-documented in primate species, neurons that are selectively activated by the mirror effect. When an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another, specific neurons fire.

When we are virtually in the action and literally surrounded by the narrative, our capacity for empathy with the human players in the scene is heightened. We are not merely watching the characters, we stand with the characters. We do not just view the screen, we are inside the world.

By immersive (and potentially overwhelming) proximity, pixels are made our virtual peers. The implications of virtual reality’s potential for empathy are enormous with regards to journalism, philanthropy, and policy making.

“…The most powerful empathy machine in all the arts”

Roger Ebert first coined the phrase “empathy machine” with regards to traditional film. VR director Chris Milk has evolved the phrase by describing virtual reality as the “ultimate empathy machine.” When we break through the passive consumption limits of 2D into immersive virtual experiences, the empathy capacity increases.

When we are inside the content, the potential for identification and emotionality is incredibly powerful.

With regards to journalism, virtual reality has enormous potential — a fact clearly recognized by the New York Times in their collaboration with Google Cardboard. One million cardboard VR headsets were distributed along with the regular Sunday edition to all NYT print subscribers in November. The virtual reality app quickly became NYT’s most successful app launch. This was also the debut of the NYT’s first virtual film “The Displaced” — the stories of 3 children who have been displaced by war.

Is Action-Oriented Journalism Philanthropy?

Traditional consumption of the news is typically passive. In traditional 2D journalism, we have access to a limited point of view and we see less than 10% of surrounding context. As our daily lives become more and more media saturated, we become increasingly numb to images of others’ suffering. Journalism is worthless if it occurs only in a vacuum; it is the action taken that matters.

Amnesty International has been an early player in the virtual content space, using the medium to introduce people to others’ experiences such as human rights violations. Films from like “Clouds Over Sidra” (a documentary about a young Syrian girl living in a refugee camp in Jordan) was commissioned by the United Nations and debuted at the World Economic Forum to world leaders.

“You might’ve seen these places on a TV screen a million times, [but] the power and presence and being there [in virtual reality] is so much more affecting. The world gets a bit smaller.” — Sam Storr, executive producer at

Our emotions are more fully involved in virtual reality, and humans make philanthropic donation choices based on emotions. There are promising signs for virtual reality as a fundraising tool for nonprofits (or for-profit, of course — which is an entirely different Pandora’s Box).

But, what if we went further…

What if we turned up the volume on charitable giving? What if, instead of being a world of armchair (headset? holograph?) philanthropists, we could utilize virtual reality for true change? Could virtual reality be used to enhance civic engagement?

Virtual Experiences, Real World Change

It is quite possible to exploit emerging technology such as virtual reality to help sustain ongoing dialogues between citizens and politicians. An early example of VR stepping into the political arena was the first 2015 Democratic Debate, which was broadcast live in virtual reality (albeit admittedly was not the most action-packed content for VR).

Viewers reported feeling that Hillary Clinton was waving right at them as she made eye contact with the real-life 360 camera. The power of connection is enormous in virtual reality, and humans tend to vote for those they can connect with. Look to the first televised US Presidential debate in 1960 for a deep lesson in the importance of media image in politics, where Kennedy’s tanned charisma infamously made Nixon look… not so Presidential.

“It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide.” -John F. Kennedy, four days after he won the 1960 election

But let’s move past the well-known (yet superficial) influence of image in politics. What if we brought technology into the system itself? We could create virtual environments that gamify the political process, and take the place of the petition, town hall, poll, etc. Knowledge is power, and our governments could crowdsource information from We the People to model different outcomes of an array of legislative decisions. What if we replaced the popularity contest of politics with a more holistic approach to lawmaking and civic engagement?

Urban planning is one example of how open innovation and citizen participation can make a beautiful marriage — particularly if you enjoy a sandbox game of 3D blocks…

Blockholm: Stockholm Being Rebuilt by MineCraft

Minecraft is a sandbox game developed by a Swedish company that empowers 100 million worldwide players to act as God and build their own procedurally generated worlds out of 3D cubes.

Microsoft bought Minecraft’s parent company Mojang (and Minecraft’s intellectual property) in 2014 for $2.5 billion. The creator, Markus “Notch” Persson, is one of Forbes’ World’s Billionaires and his net worth is $1.3 billion (the point of these numbers is that real money is involved). Critics love Minecraft’s complex crafting system, and its open-ended style of gameplay has been applied to practical and real world computer-aided design and education.

“Minecraft [is] … far greater than just a video game. It is a global phenomenon that has attracted millions of people. It is incredibly exciting that it is now being used for dialogue and visualization in urban planning.” -Carl Manneh, CEO at Mojang

Returning to its Swedish roots, Minecraft is driving the Blockholm project: professional architects and urban planners uniting with 10,000 gamers and citizens to creatively envision the future of Stockholm’s city design. Participants register their own plot in the Minecraft copy of Stockholm, and then construct their own buildings for the future as suggestions for real-world urban planners

Consider for a moment, how the interactivity of Minecraft could be enhanced in virtual reality- when we are virtually inside our own (or crowd-sourced) creations. What other lessons can we learn from applying the principles of gamification and crowdsourcing within virtual reality to solve societal issues and maintain systemic and political dialogues?

Real World Progress…?

To apply virtual reality to the news and journalism gives us a greater emotional effect and understanding of people and places across the world. If we can channel this compassion into action and increase our philanthropy as a human race, we could ease the pain of countless people across the world. We could hold more meaningful dialogues in the political process instead of reinforcing the limited current binary nature of the system. If we enhance the power of the crowd with the immersive and creative nature of virtual reality technology we could accomplish great things, together.

Malia Probst is a virtual reality producer and host of the Real Virtual Show, a live, participatory talk show focusing on conversations with leaders in the virtual and augmented reality fields. Stay in the loop at where real people talk live about virtual.