Stanford study finds VR helps people be more compassionate versus other media

Looks like virtual reality's potential for immersion opens up our hearts as well.

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Virtual reality may be a clearer window into the experience of others. VR has many applications beyond entertainment and Stanford researches has developed one called Becoming Homeless to test if and how tech affects empathy. Based on the experience, a published study shows that VR can help make people more compassionate and empathetic toward the homeless compared to other forms of media.

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it". Empathy is defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." The Standford study measured the enduring impact of a VR experience on these character traits.

“About 10 million headsets have been sold in the U.S. over the past two years. So, many people now have access to VR experiences. But we still don’t know much about how VR affects people,” said graduate student and lead author of the research paper Fernanda Herrera. “This research is an important step in figuring out how much of an effect this technology can have on people’s level of empathy in the long term.”

Becoming Homeless features interactive VR scenarios that involve losing one's home.  One scene has the user looking around the apartment to figure out what to sell to pay rent and another has the user on a public bus, where they must shield their belongings from being stolen.

The study found that those that tried Becoming Homeless had enduring positive attitudes toward the homeless, versus those that merely read a narrative or interacted with a 2D version of the same scenarios. “Experiences are what define us as humans, so it’s not surprising that an intense experience in VR is more impactful than imagining something,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication and a co-author of the paper.

Virtual reality is criticized for its escapism, mostly predicated on the use of a VR HMD that shields your eyes from the immediate world around you. Some, however, see it as the "ultimate empathy machine" and are building experiences around the idea that it can change people for the better.

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Charles Singletary Jr keeps the updates flowing as the News Editor, breaking stories while investigating the biggest topics in gaming and technology. He's pretty active on Twitter, so feel free to reach out to him @The_CSJR. Got a hot tip? Email him at Charles.Singletary@Shacknews.com.

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