Pushing back the limits of Virtual Reality: the ultimate Empathy Machine

Maria Sergeeva
February 28, 2018

One snap of your finger and you can walk in your child’s or a woman’s shoes. How? Virtual reality. Now your VR glasses can serve as a performance art piece, improve empathy and even treat domestic violence offenders.

VR as a piece of art

The opportunity to SEE the world  through the eyes of another inspires many artist aroun the world?  One of the projects, THE MACHINE TO BE ANOTHER is an Open Source Art investigation on the relation of Identity and Empathy that has been developed on a basis of low budget experiments of Embodiment and Virtual Body Extension.

Designed as an interactive performance installation, the ‘Machine’ offers users the possibility of interacting with a piece of another person’s life story by seeing themselves in the body of this person and listening to his/her thoughts inside their mind.

The project is currently developed by BeAnotherLab and is looking to understand empathy, identity, body agency, and subjectiveness from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Bertrand, one of the eight artists in the international art collective Be Another Lab, spent months building and testing the technology behind The Machine to Be Another.

Oculus Rift-donned participants can sit in a chair and swap perception with a performer. Using a microphone and a wearable wide-angle web camera, the performer mirrors the participant’s actions. A participant, then, may open his eyes and see another person’s face in the mirror. He may look down and see a woman’s hands. Or pick up a pair of shoes and hear the spoken “thoughts” of a performer through the headphones.

In just the past month, the staged program—part performance art, part experiment—has been used by psychologists, neuroscientists, and researchers in six countries to explore issues like mutual respect, gender identity, physical limitations, and immigration.

“It’s disorienting—an experience you have never had in your life,” Bertrand says to Wired. “Afterwards, you now know someone in an intimate way that helps you connect.”

It is also a possibility to remind us: we are the same with our fears and dreams but we are not born in the same conditions. Film producer Chris Milk worked with the United Nations to create a virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra, that puts you inside a Syrian refugee camp and follows a day in the life of 12-year-old Sidra, a girl who has lived there for 18 months with thousands of other refugees. Wearing Oculus Rift, movie watchers might feel as if they’re sitting right next to Sidra: move your head and see children walking, turning their heads to look back at you.

“[Virtual reality] connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other,” Milk says in a TED Talk. “That is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”

VR’s possibilities extend well beyond the familiar gaming and sales applications. Now it’s becoming the ultimate empathy machine.

“We are entering an era that is unprecedented in human history, where you can transform the self and [you can] experience anything the animator can fathom,” says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “The research shows it can have a deep effect on behavior.”

Bailenson’s team is running a research project called “Empathy at Scale” that explores ways to design, test, and distribute virtual reality projects that teach empathy. Experiments include whether seeing a 65-year-old avatar of yourself prompts you to save more for retirement. (It does.) Or if seeing the world through the eyes of a color-blind person will make you more willing to help him or her than if you just imagined it.

Scientists find more and more evidence of empathy improvement in virtual reality which is more successful if the headset wearer moves around.

Producers of virtual reality often herald it as a shortcut to empathy. For example, in February at a fundraising conference in the UK, a Greenpeace manager reported that VR experience which transports viewers into the Amazon rain forest doubled the number of people who signed up for donations.

Now, researchers have developed a virtual reality system to treat men who have committed a domestic violence crime, by placing them in their victim’s shoes.

In the study, researchers from the University of Barcelona showed that violent people have a lack of emotional recognition, but that a virtual experience improves their empathy.

Mavi Sanchez Vives, who coordinated the study, said: “Virtual bodies can be drastically different from the participant’s, but even so, the individual goes under a strong subjective illusion of owning the virtual body.

 “These illusions have an impact on the participant by altering perceptions, attitudes and behaviour.”

The researchers analyzed the impact of immersive virtual reality on 20 abusers, as well as 19 control participants.

Participants took a test on emotional recognition to determine whether the experience would change their perception and empathy.

In the session, participants entered a virtual atmosphere, in which their body was replaced by that of a virtual woman.