Virtual Reality, Real Feelings

15 December 2021

Can virtual reality make people more empathetic, train students in the scientific method, and help people overcome their fears? Will it be a tool for propaganda and mind-control? Or will it just be a fun toy, with no serious consequences either way? 

 

This week’s episode—“What Can Virtual Reality (Actually) Do?”—asks whether VR is a force for good, a force for ill, or not much of a force at all. It’s the second episode in our series, The Human and the Machine, generously sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

 

Let's start by admitting that VR is really fun. All you have to do is put on a headset and suddenly you’re transported into a magical world where you can swim with dolphins, spar with Darth Vader, or pretend to be James Bond. But VR isn’t just for entertainment. It has programs designed to help you exercise; it can teach kids cool things about science; you can have meetings in VR that are a ton better than Zoom; you can even get therapy for phobias and PTSD.

 

Of course, you can do all those things in the real world too. And some might argue that it’s better to have a living, breathing teacher or therapist than an imaginary or virtual one. But VR lets you do some things you can't do (or can’t do safely) in the real world. You couldn’t stand inside a real volcano, for example, and you wouldn’t want to be in a war zone. VR lets you experience things like that—things that are dangerous or even impossible.

 

But why is that important?

 

One compelling answer that’s been proposed is that certain VR experiences can help us develop empathy. If you can feel what it’s like to be in a war zone (without actually putting yourself in danger), you can start to empathize with victims of conflict. One VR simulation I’ve been in, called Clouds over Sidra, takes you around a refugee camp in Jordan. It’s a very moving experience. 

 

My colleagues in literature departments might reasonably counter that many novels, plays, and movies already aim to cultivate empathy. But fans of VR have something to say in response: if that’s your goal, then VR is a more powerful tool. The reason is that by being so immersive and so interactive, it more or less tricks the brain into thinking it’s really having the experience.

 

In fact, VR does such a good job of fooling us that—sadly—its users often end up injuring themselves. If you’re being chased by a virtual zombie, you may very well run into a wall in your living room trying to escape. These kinds of injuries are so common that there’s even a rather wry name for it—“VR to ER.”

 

So one way you might think about VR is that it’s the most powerful technology ever invented for creating imaginary experiences that feel real. And because those experiences feel so real, the argument goes, they’re likely to have impacts pretty similar to real-world events. If you see someone suffering in VR, your heart will bleed for them. That was certainly my experience in Clouds over Sidra.

 

Still, there is a worry that this empathetic effect might not be universal. Take someone who enjoys running over grannies while playing Grand Theft Auto, for example. Is that person going to suddenly develop empathy, just from performing some activity in VR?

 

And more to the point, is that person even going to choose the relevant activities? Will someone who loves running over grannies in Grand Theft Auto be interested in simulating the life of a victim of war? Maybe people who choose to experience something like Clouds over Sidra are people who are already empathetic. If that’s the case, then it’s unclear how useful VR is as a tool for fostering empathy.

 

And there’s another serious worry about VR: if it can be a force for good, it can also be a force for ill. Could unscrupulous designers create experiences that confuse users about what’s real and what isn’t? Experiences that sell products, political candidates, even versions of history? Jaron Lanier warns that VR “could turn out to be the evilest invention of all time.” Will it?

 

So what do you think? Can VR help us solve any real-world problems? Or will it just create more of them?

 

This week’s guest, Jeremy Bailenson, is the ideal person to talk to about all this. He’s written a fantastic book on VR, called Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. And he directs Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where I once fell down an imaginary hole. In that moment, I didn’t feel too much like James Bond…

 

Photo by capondesign on Pixabay

Comments (3)


Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Wednesday, December 15, 2021 -- 7:21 PM

As brought up in the show,

As brought up in the show, the VR provider's access to personal data is universally available, signed over, and insecure. VR bio-stamping isn't like browsing data. VR gives raw bits of intelligence that sell the farm. People need to be aware.

There needs to be some separation from extreme VR and use cases. Sometimes you need that; sometimes you want that; sometimes you are given more immersion than is for your own good.

Finally, the digital divide. The benefits in learning and networking, not to mention fun, aren't available to those who need it the most.

I don't know what reality is. There is goodness in fictional worlds. Suppose you look at life from a Covid basement, where many people add value without ever coming into contact with the outside world. In that case, if you look at blockchain server farms that pull more power than most countries, the reality is not what it was, or even, I would argue, what it is. I will use VR; I might put it in the bin of 3D television. I'd rather read a book and take a walk. I don't think VR will be a force for good in the long run. But that won't stop others. I don't think there is much control or desire to think about what makes a good life. Perhaps this is the VR world I would indulge. We could all teleport in for a philosophical chat. But it is into Plato's cave and the shadows that we should visit, not setup a metaverse.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 10, 2022 -- 3:37 PM

Is empathetic really a word?

Is empathetic really a word? Empathy is. As are sympathy and sympathetic. The second word in these comments sounds insincere. Even derogatory. My grandson shows evidence of becoming an empath. He is only fifteen, and may not even know the word yet. Seems to me that empathic is a better word. How words sound is a better barometer sometimes. Pathetic is easily recognized as describing what it means. These are conventions. Occasionally difficult to parse...

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, January 15, 2022 -- 6:00 AM

After reconsidering my

After reconsidering my previous comment, I donned my objectivist hat. It helps me look more openly at the long view of difficult questions. VR is still pretty new, when seen in that light. And, insofar as neuroscience is not fully-fledged either, knee-jerk assessments are only that. By way of rough comparison, the notion of immunization took awhile beyond the discovery of antisepsis, penicillin and such other disease fighting techniques. Immunizations have saved us on several occasions. I don't imagine I shall ever benefit from any prophlactic or therapeutic effects that may ultimately attach to VR or its' descendent(s). But, well, you just never know...

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