Virtual reality (VR) has often been referred to as ‘the empathy machine’ for its ability to put people in the shoes of others. However, until now, that moniker was the result of anecdotal evidence. A study by researchers at Stanford has backed up claims that VR can make people more empathetic.
Stanford researchers developed a VR application called Becoming Homeless as part of a study to test how media and technology can affect empathy. Based on the evidence gathered, the published study showed that VR can help people be more compassionate.
Becoming Homeless features interactive VR scenarios that involve losing your home. One scene involves the user searching their apartment trying to find items that can be sold in other to make enough money for rent, while another sees the user on a bus, trying to protect their belongings from being stolen.
“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.”
The study discovered that those who tried Becoming Homeless expressed enduring positive attitudes towards the homeless, when compared to those who read a narrative or interacted with a 2D version of the same scenario.
“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.
A trailer for Becoming Homeless is available to view below and further information on the study can be found on the Stanford University website. For future coverage on developments in VR, keep checking back with VRFocus.