From the earliest plays and novels, artists have created mediated experiences for their audiences to entertain, teach and expand perspectives. The best of these have catapulted audiences into magical worlds and deep into the lives of the characters inhabiting those worlds. Now, virtual reality could eclipse them all with its ability to generate powerful emotions of empathy and send us to previously unimagined landscapes and experiences.

Below are a handful of articles from around the web examining this potential for creating empathy, from the neuroscience explaining what makes empathy in VR possible, to applications in filmmaking, journalism and civic engagement.

How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine
Chris Milk | TED
“It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other. And that’s how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world. So, it’s a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.”

Inside the Empathy Machine: VR, Neuroscience, Race and Journalism
Joel Beeson | Media Shift
“Neuroscientists have been exploring the use of VR in terms of empathy and embodiment in light of new understandings of what is called the mirror neuron system. These brain cells trigger when a primate carries out an action but also activate when it watches another primate doing the same act, making a virtual simulation in the brain — an essential skill for social interaction and learning. Some neuroscientists believe this process gives virtual reality its power to create empathy and to build connections across divides of race, gender, age and class.”

The Limits of Virtual Reality: Debugging The Empathy Machine
Ainsley Sutherland | MIT Open Documentary Lab
“At Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, a key research goal is “empathy at scale.” Excitement about the discovery of so-called “mirror neurons” lends a sense of possible increases in scientific rigor, and experiments in body visualization and “perspective-taking” have been met with positive results in medical studies. But can the immersive perspective provided by virtual reality actually provoke increases in empathy?”

How The NY Times Is Sparking the VR Journalism Revolution
Angela Watercutter | Wired
“A lot of the questions about the importance of VR for journalism go back to empathy—the current buzzword in VR filmmaking. Taking a page from Roger Ebert’s assertion that a movie is an “empathy machine,” people excited about VR’s storytelling potential like to point out that nothing will make a person more empathetic to a protagonist than virtually living in their world. So when that protagonist is actually a resident of a war-torn country, say, or protester in the streets, that potential for empathy is quite sizable.”

Could Virtual Reality Improve Civic Engagement in Policy Making?
Eddie Copeland | Democratic Audit UK
“Imagine if instead of the petition, the tweet, or the forum, we could use technology to simulate environments or decisions, to gamify the process so that the public could accurately model the outcomes that would result from one policy decision or another. In its efforts to crowdsource information, imagine if government could seek out the most skilled or knowledgeable individuals and organizations on a particular area by seeing who advanced most progressively through a virtual reality rules-based decision game.”


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Sveta writes about the intersection of biology and technology (and occasionally other things). She also enjoys long walks on the beach, being underwater and climbing rocks. You can follow her @svm118.

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