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How To Design A More Empathetic VR Experience

Nate Robinson, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Ntropic, discusses the key aspects of creating a VR experience designed to induce empathy.

If you search around the internet, you’ll see that plenty of research is already making the connection between empathy and VR. I’ve seen VR experiences being credited with everything from saving the environment to fostering a better understanding of the refugee crisis. Even our own work on the VR experience Phone of the Wind dealt with difficult issues of grief and closure. Everyone is experimenting, hoping to prove VR’s value as an “empathy machine.” But as a designer tasked with creating these empathetic VR experiences, things get a bit more tricky.

Great Northern Forest

I mean, let’s face it. Inspiring empathy, even without VR, is hard work. Once you add VR to the equation, there’s a temptation within the creative community to treat it like you would any other exciting new design tool, pushing the medium to try to make every experience as cool as possible. But at the end of the day, it’s not enough to just make a VR experience cool – not if empathy is the final goal. It has to be emotionally memorable and designed in a way so that every user can take away a feeling that will inspire personal change.

That means being thoughtful and really considering every design element – never overwhelming the user. It also means making sure VR is the right tool for the story you’re trying to tell. It’s a creative challenge but ultimately, it takes a more empathetic design approach to create an empathetic VR experience. Here’s how you get it done.

Keep it simple
The most important thing to avoid in any VR design is information overload, but with empathetic VR it’s especially crucial. Instead, you have to focus on simplicity because if the viewer doesn’t feel comfortable right off the bat, or if you don’t give them time to get their bearings, you’ll never be able to create something that actually engages them and draws them in.

Visually, that means sticking with designs that are kind of iconic. For example, with Phone of the Wind, we opted to go for a very illustrative look. This was a conscious decision, with the hopes that the users would connect to the experience as if it were a childhood memory. With that as an emotional reference point, people could project their own experiences onto what they see, hear and feel. Sure, we could have designed the experience in a very photo-real way, but as an experience looks more real, it’s often feels less real, making real empathy much harder.

Central themes should also be basic and universal, including at least some scenarios that all people can relate to at some level. Many of us has had a parental figure who was over-nurturing or a mentor that taught us how to throw a baseball for the first time or some other meaningful moment of learning. These are emotionally inclusive experiences and their thematic simplicity gives people the room to recall their own specific memories and let those flood in to fill the narrative gaps without distraction.

Let your senses set the mood
Designers sometimes tend to focus too much on the graphics and animations in VR. But if the goal is to carefully guide people into the experience, there are plenty of senses beyond sight that are just as important. Empathetic experiences should involve many of the senses. It’s not about showing off with the technology, it’s about tapping into the basic primal emotions and urges.

Sound design plays a huge part in this. Music and sounds can be a stronger trigger for empathy than visual queues. In fact studies have shown that music can be a key to unlocking memories for people with Alzheimer’s, using songs or sounds that were meaningful when they were younger. In VR, sound can work the same way.

Working in VR, sound also becomes a way to surface certain emotions to give an experience needed direction. At times when stuff happening in every direction in the VR world, the distance and placement of sounds can work to subtly guide you, making you feel like you naturally knew where to go. Again, this feels more real and makes it easier to become emotionally invested.

Another trick is the lighting. Obviously, designers talk about how to use lighting to make something look great but people often underestimate the power lighting has to change what emotions a user takes from an experience. You know you’re watching a horror film if a room is dark with the light coming from a single source. The opposite is also true, since the right lighting can help you feel safe or nostalgic.

Don’t forget the user
Designers should always be mindful of the POV and how the user is framed within the virtual space. VR is unique in that it mimics real life, putting the user at the center of everything that happens. As a result, everything is directed at the person navigating the experience, empowering the user to feel like their decisions can make an impact.

For example, a recent experience we created, in part, explored the dangers of nuclear weapons. Towards the end of the experience, there’s a moment that you have a huge amount of nuclear warheads pointed at you. It’s designed to be the most unnerving thing ever. You naturally get defensive and you want to protect yourself. Once the experience is over, most people come away wanting to make a difference when it comes to that issue. They remember the dread from the virtual world, and they don’t want to feel that way in the real world.

That’s the power of VR and the specific POV of the user. There’s a very interesting thing that happens when you’re at the center. It forces you feel the emotional effects of the experience and draws out your empathy to bring about change in the real world. So, designers should call attention to the users POV when they can.

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The feeling of change
It’s easy to get lost when designing VR experiences. Sometimes, you can make something visually amazing that ultimately leaves users with no idea what it was all about. Too many times, designers can forget to make sure there is an emotional takeaway. That’s where empathy comes in. You have to restrict and distill the experience down to get to the core feelings that everyone can understand. This is especially important in a creative field where we’re all working so fast, with an eye on experimentation instead of the intended emotional result. When the experience is over, people should feel changed and inspired to make change to themselves and the world around them.

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