Try Being Homeless with VR: Empathy 101
Researchers at Stanford University want you to try “being homeless.” Using VR, these researchers help you “experience” the progression of losing your home. From losing your job, having to sell belongings to pay for rent, and eventually having to move into your car. No kid dreaming of their future ever expected to end up in that position, and people typically forget: the homeless person on the street used to be a dreaming kid.
Making an effort to see the world through someone else’s eyes is a critical part of empathy. And seeing the downward spiral in vivid detail might improve our sympathy for those in that position. Researchers today are making this sort of experience possible. Their question: Can a person learn empathy by using virtual reality?
The Machine to Be Another is a system where two people, both wearing head-mounted displays (HMDs), get to experience the world through the other’s eyes. A camera mounted on each HMD captures the feed of the other person’s field of view and, together, the participants mimic each other’s actions. The camera feed streams to the opposite headset, so that both people see from the other person’s point of view.
Researchers hypothesize that such an experience grows empathy. And many of them believe this system can test this hypothesis across genders, ethnicities, and even varying disabilities.
Law enforcement officials and authorities want to use a similar idea. They hope to increase the civility between people by increasing the empathy between them.
The North Yorkshire Police in the UK are using a VR experience to educate drivers who pass too closely to cyclists when overtaking them. If you’ve ever been the cyclist in this scenario, you’ll know it is daunting... A big truck going 30 mph missing you by inches.
But most people are careless about their proximity to cyclists—something that might change after witnessing the cyclist’s perspective in VR. The experience is a short video created by Cycling UK, and the film will be featured on Oculus Go HMDs purchased by the police department. These headsets will ship to the North Yorkshire Police in 2019.
A similar idea has been used to better understand those with Dementia. The project A Walk Through Dementia takes you on a journey through the eyes of someone with this affliction.
This technology is demonstrating the perspective of friends, cyclists, the homeless, and those suffering with dementia, and we can be sure that yet more first person experiences will be available in the years to come. Preliminary studies have shown that this type of virtual reality experience does, in fact, increase empathy.
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