Can virtual reality make people more empathetic, train students in the scientific method, and help people overcome their fears? This week’s episode asks whether VR is a force for good, a force for ill, or not much of a force at all.
What Is It
VR transports users into all kinds of different realities, some modeled on the real world, others completely invented. Though still in its infancy, the technology has become so sophisticated, it can trick the brain into treating the virtual experience as real and unmediated. So what is the most prudent way to employ this cutting edge technology going forward? Could VR help solve real world problems, like implicit bias or the climate crisis? And as the technology becomes more widely available, are there potential dangers we ought to be seriously thinking about? Josh and Ray strap on their goggles with Jeremy Bailenson, Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, and author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do.
Part of our series The Human and the Machine.
Is virtual reality more than just an avenue for fun? Can it help us become more empathetic people? Ray believes that VR offers opportunities to experience things that would be too dangerous or impossible in the real world, which can help increase our capacity for empathy. Josh, however, is skeptical that virtual worlds have advantages over reality, and that such VR experiences designed to increase empathy only work for those already seeking them out.
The philosophers are joined by Jeremy Bailenson, Professor of Communication and Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. Jeremy discusses his lab’s work in providing experiences that would help people rethink their perspectives and increase empathy, possibly leading to long-term behavior change. He goes on to describe his class taught using VR as well as the importance of bringing in domain experts when using the technology to combat prejudice and racism. In response to Ray’s worry about social media companies monopolizing VR technology, Jeremy voices concerns about privacy, addiction, and the blurring of reality. Ultimately, he believes VR isn’t for everything.
In the last segment of the show, Ray, Josh, and Jeremy discuss the possibilities for full body VR technology and its application in sports medicine. They transition to the concept of augmented reality (AR), which has been used in creating AR companion animals and artistic overlays in film festivals. To conclude, Jeremy offers insights on the current social norms and stigma surrounding the use of VR and AR technology.
Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 4:43) → Shereen Adel tries out an augmented reality experience designed to bring ocean science directly to the people and spark a concern for climate change.
Sixty-Second Philosopher (Seek to 45:03) → Ian Shoales explains why we need alternative realities over virtual realities.
Can Virtual Reality solve real world problems?
Will it make us more empathetic?
Could VR even help us tackle the climate crisis?