Could virtual reality break us out of little England?

It’s been a pretty hectic month or so here in the UK. Since the decision to leave the EU, for the first time I find myself facing the realisation that London is very much a bubble of liberalism and acceptance (I know, yes I am pleasantly naive it appears). It came with genuine surprise when we awoke on the 24th June to hear that Brexit, a once ridiculous, irritating threat headed up by one of the countries worst antagonists Nigel Farage was in fact a reality.

But that is not the topic of this article; why the result was to leave has done its rounds, we get it. No, what has fascinated me since, is the hatred and xenophobia that has bubbled to the surface. Whilst having one particularly heated discussion with a former schoolmate who was adamant that Asylum seekers and Muslims in general were incapable of becoming part of British society; it dawned on me this all comes down to empathy. This guy was incapable of imagining what pushed these people to seek asylum. When asked what he would do, he replied from his comfortable 5 bedroom house in Sussex that in the face of ISIS he would “have stayed and fought for his country”. Sure story buddy. I wish this feeling were uncommon but I fear it’s not. With media presence rallying divisive messages and rose tinted glasses of the past; we have hit a position where many of the UK are unable to empathise with people outside of ‘Little England’.

When it comes to this topic, the difference between empathy and sympathy is crucial. Sympathy is feeling saddened by another’s situation, feeling for their position but not feeling those feelings as if they are your own. A sense of sincere but courteous detachment perhaps. Empathy however requires Theory of Mind; the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another, to see why they have these feelings or motivations and taking them on yourself.

So what has this got to do with tech? Last week I attended Virtual Futures panel talk on ‘Electronic Empathy’ where artist Jane Gauntlet was one of the speakers. Jane’s In My Shoes Project evolved from her own experiences since a traumatic brain injury left her with epilepsy and communication challenges. Of course people had sympathy for her, but could they imagine what it is like to have something in your mind and be unable to communicate it? The frustration this must cause? The way her senses have changed since the injury? No. Thus she created the ‘In my shoes’ project. Jane uses virtual reality and theatre effects to show what it is like to be inside her mind. Using technology she puts another into her shoes to see first hand, to digitally invoke empathy. Jane has found this medium immensely powerful in helping people to empathise with her situation.

And Jane is not the only one exploring technology and empathy, Barcelona based New Media Artist Christian Cherene’s project, Be Another Lab has been using VR and first person perspective cameras to swap people into another’s conscious. Christian uses his open source projects to take people on a journey of discovery. He poses the ambitious question of “What would the world be like if one could see through the eyes of another? Would it help us to understand each other? Would it help us to understand ourselves?” To date the project has allowed people to experience a different gender, life with disabilities and what it is like to be an immigrant. To see the magic of this project, this video is a must watch.

But does this technology really work? Does it help us empathise with a situation so far out of our experiential knowledge? Could it reduce xenophobia and break us free of ‘Little England’? Well on an anecdotal level both Christian and Jane would support this, but with a science background, I’m always keen for some evidence.

Introducing cognitive psychologist and lecturer of computing at Goldsmith University, Sylvia Xueni Pan. Adding some research depth to the panel at Virtual Futures, Sylvia’s specialism is VR and social cognition. She is currently investigating the underlying aspects of social interaction and exploring how tech could help the treatment for disorders and phobias. Through her work she experiments with getting participants to empathise with virtual characters and looks at what aspects create more or less empathy from the observer. Her research has shown that virtual characters can be created with distinct personalities, e.g. shy or bold, and these characteristics of a virtual avatar can influence people’s feelings towards them. Creating real empathy for a virtual representation.

Another amazing study by Tabitha Peck of Duke University and colleagues (Peck et al, 2013) used VR to put someone of light skin tone into the body ownership of someone with dark skin. Her study found that by doing this and allowing the person to experience the body through movements and a mirror in which they appeared to be dark sinned, they reduced implicit racial biases even at a follow up test 3 days later.

Now I’m not saying let’s hook the whole country up to VR headsets and we each try out every shape, gender and colour available to make us more tolerant, no. But what I am proposing is a conscious thought of how technology will play a vital role in media and first person storytelling in the future. Imagine if instead of reading about a bomb being dropped onto a tower block of families in Damascus on the news with still images, instead we consumed this media through VR as we watched the news. What will happen when all our mobile phones can record 360 video so our real time reporting changes? What will happen when headsets are the norm and so we experience news content differently? Will we harness this technology to do good and empathise? And could it even break us out of ‘Little England”?


Pan, X., Gillies, M., & Slater, M. (2015). Virtual character personality influences participant attitudes and behavior–an interview with a virtual human character about her social anxiety. Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 2, 1.

Peck, T. C., Seinfeld, S., Aglioti, S. M., & Slater, M. (2013). Putting yourself in the skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias. Consciousness and cognition, 22(3), 779–787.

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