On VR and empathy – we’re facing a serious paradigm shift

On VR and empathy – we’re facing a serious paradigm shift

Now I have been very carefully following VR developments since 2011 when I started to fantasise about omnidirectional treadmill RUNPAD (that is finally ready for launch) and that has given me time to read, listen, study and most importantly think. I have realised many positive sides of VR starting from rise of creativity and awareness to empathy and usefulness (from edutainment to experiencing the impossible). But in this piece, along the positive effects, I’d like to cover also some less clear potential effects.

Today on TED new inspiring talk was published by Chris Milk. He uses cutting edge technology to produce astonishing films that delight and enchant. But for Milk, the human story is the driving force behind everything he does. In this short, charming talk, he shows some of his collaborations with musicians including Kanye West and Arcade Fire, and describes his latest, mind-bending experiments with virtual reality.

“Talking about Virtual Reality is like dancing about architecture”

Chris Milk

That is a new trend in VR as obviously being immersed into another reality gives a much closer perspective – there’s no screen to separate you from the other reality, no window. This news piece on the TechCrunch talks pretty much about the same effect. But feeling present in a refugee camp is just a tip of the iceberg. As written by Ion Irwing at KILL SCREEN (“CAN VIRTUAL REALITY MAKE US MORE EMPATHETIC?“) the possible empathy goes much deeper. The article covers how scientific research proves being inside someone’s virtual body can rise empathy towards the type used.

“This kind of illusion can affect our mind beyond racial or ethnic stereotypes. Similar experiments have taken place where an older person is given the virtual body of a child; immediately afterward, they respond in ways more child-like and process information from a younger perspective.”


On photo is seen how the old “rubber hand” trick is used to connect to connect these two women. Also Criffin is researching Neurohaptics and potential uses in VR.

In a nutshell this kind of approach can be used for opening up minds and make people understand one-another better. Imagine a racist inside of a black man or the other way around? That’s already another level of empathy.

What will the rise of VR mean to video games if it brings along so much empathy? Would you walk on the streets of Los Santos (GTA 5 open world), shooting innocent woman in the head? And if you would – would that mean you have lost all empathy becoming dangerous to society?

Here’s an actual example from VR gaming where, using locomotion platform OMNI, user is running around the already mentioned Los Santos:

I don’t know all the answers but I’m optimist.

Hereafter a few key points I see:

  • either games will become more life-like, like a good thriller with less action;
  • action is directed towards “lifeless” characters (robots, zombies, etc.)
  • the stylistics or setting is changed to fantasy world (e.g. Borderlands 2)
  • the action and stamina are unrealistically strongly intense making similar experience in reality impossible

I’d like to comment every point separately.

Now… The first two are actually not going to work. In the beginning probably but it’s going to change because as title suggests: we’re facing a serious paradigm shift. With the rise of empathy we won’t feel only for one another, but also start to understand the dilemmas of robots and inner pain of zombies. I’m not going to link here Kubrick’s “Space Odussey 2001” or Alex Garland’s “Ex_Machina”, but focus on an interesting alternate ending of “I am legend”.

“I’m legend”, starring Will Smith, was about a zombie apocalypse. Years after a plague kills most of humanity and transforms the rest into monsters, the sole survivor in New York City struggles valiantly to find a cure. Of course the monsters were mindless animals and the plot swivelled around how to turn them back into humans. In particular there was one very mean alpha one. Well. Will Smith & Co kidnapped a female zombie and the alpha kept bothering them after that. What a monster!

The movie ended with blowing sh_t up, finding cure and eventually also shelter with nicely church-equipped little fortress-village. That was a suitable ending for man kind back in 2007 and it probably still is.

However, it’s not the official plot I want to focus here but the alternate ending. Fortunately enough the director Francis Lawrence managed to shoot it and this turns everything around:

Now this is where we’re heading to. Compassion and understanding. It is much harder way to walk than the polarised ignorance we like to dream in. But we shall be awaken by other, very realistic dreams. Those dreams – or in other words Virtual Reality – will change our perspective in many ways.

And being an optimist: surely for the better!

Peeter Nieler,
Founder of Criffin

Please read also my article on Virtual Reality and Creativity.

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