Hello, world!

This marks the first blog post for Versatile. We’re Cathy, Jenny, Alex, and Sophie, a team of Stanford students collaborating with Facebook and Oculus for the next two quarters to utilize social and emotional learning (SEL) to create a virtual reality (VR) experience to teach empathy. We’ll be updating this blog on a regular basis with our progress, challenges, and explorations.

Visiting the Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Yesterday, we had the opportunity to visit the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) to learn more about the research and projects currently being done with VR, emotional intelligence, and empathy.

Think about a powerful experience that you’ve had in real life that has shaped you. If we can recreate that in virtual reality, then it follows that we can create experiences that can shape you. That’s the power of virtual reality.

Elise, one of the members of the lab, kindly showed us around and gave a basic rundown of the lab and the different concepts related to VR and human psychology. We jumped right in and Cathy was the first person to put on the Oculus Rift in the main room. We all observed her viewpoint via a screen in the room. As Elise talked Cathy through the simulation, she explained the magic of presence, or being able to feel as if you were actually there. So when the simulated room that Cathy was in suddenly changed to a deep pit and only a plank of wood to get out, we all were able to see how Cathy reacted.

One of the questions we had going in was how avatars function in VR. Embodiment is when one is able to experience what it’s like to be someone else. The process of embodiment is achieved through body transfer, which is when you feel that what happens to your avatar is what happens to you. It turns out that the process of body transfer usually only takes around four minutes! The participant can see themself as an avatar in the mirror of the simulated world, and can see their movements in real life mirrored by the avatar. Utilizing synchronous touch — when you see your avatar being touched by another avatar and the researcher is touching you in the same place in real life — makes the process even faster.

The experiments that stood out the most to me were those involving body transfer with avatars that were not of their current selves. For example, studies show that when participants body transfer with an avatar of themselves that has been aged several decades, the participants are more likely to practice delayed gratification (e.g. save more money for the future). In fact, Bank of America utilizes this knowledge through their Face Retirement app, to encourage people to save more. In another study, participants who experienced body transfer to a hypersexualized avatar were more likely to believe the rape myth. And participants who experienced body transfer to avatars that were of a different gender and race from themselves were shown to be more empathetic to them afterwards.

Alex viewing himself in the mirror with a Black woman avatar.

In fact, you don’t even have to body transfer with human avatars to empathize with the plight of the avatar being represented. A study about meat consumption had participants body transfer with cows, going from a farm to the slaughterhouse. Another study had participant body transfer with a coral in a reef plagued by carbon dioxide vents. And yes, participants empathized more after experiencing this in VR.

During our time there, we also discussed how to measure empathy. These measures ranged from questionnaires after the VR experience to those that were more directly related to the experiment at hand. For example, for a study on homelessness where participants experienced how it was to be homeless via VR, some of the measures used included: participants’ willingness to sign a petition for affordable housing, how much of the money they earned from the study were they willing to donate, and how much time they spent listening to the stories of other homeless people. These examples demonstrated exactly how varied these measures of empathy could be.

Being able to see such a variety of uses of VR to increase empathy gave us a better understanding of what kind of technology is currently available and some possible models for experiences that we would like to create, and there is no doubt that we will be returning to what we’ve learned as we move onto brainstorming ideas for our project this weekend. Thank you again to Elise, Catherine, and Shawnee for giving us a tour of VHIL and introducing us to the research being carried out!

— Sophie

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