How VR Can Build Empathy and Understanding

02/06/2017 12:34 pm ET

Virtual reality (VR) may have made its first major strides in the gaming industry, but today, businesses and communities outside of gaming are starting to dive into the technology’s unparalleled ability to capture and engage an audience. Artists, activists and journalists alike have started utilizing this new experience vehicle to build a sense of empathy and understanding that was previously impossible. The United Nations (UN), for instance, jumped on the VR train by creating a trio of short immersive films that focus on global issues, such as the Syrian refugee crisis. In doing so, the international organization worked to raise awareness about the plight of people around the world by creating a shared perspective through this new, emerging technology. While content creators are currently setting their own rules in the versatile and relatively new storytelling medium, there are a few key elements to keep in mind throughout the process that will help achieve a greater level of understanding among viewers.

The Senses

As its name implies, virtual reality is meant to create a world that simulates the real one and, ultimately, immerses people within it. A major challenge to achieving empathy can be the lack of shared experience or understanding as it relates to another person. While traditional TV programs and films allow people to see the two-dimensional world being presented to them, VR takes it one step further by allowing viewers to break through the screen and become active participants in an environment they have never, or otherwise would never be able to, experience. Instead of simply following a storyline from the living room couch, utilizing VR’s capabilities, viewers can step into the life of a child inside the U.S. prison system or a Blue Angels pilot flying in the squadron’s signature diamond formation. While this is not to say that VR will overtake traditional TV and film, it is certainly providing a new avenue for evoking strong emotions.

Understanding someone else’s conditions, however, goes beyond sight. With VR audio technology, the sense of hearing can be heightened as well. In addition to seeing a full 360-degree environment, users can feel as if sounds are coming from behind, in front or beside them. Spatial audio company, G’Audio Lab combines 3D sound with interactivity, creating a sense of localization that allows sound to be adjusted in real time, following the movement and head orientation of the user, as he or she moves about freely in the virtual world. This way, if a user were to turn his or her head in reaction to the roar of a Jurassic Park dinosaur, the sound would follow the movement from point A to point B, making it seem as if they were truly there.

Another key component to understanding, is the sense of touch. While the industry has already tapped into the development of haptic technology to accompany the audio and visual elements of VR, there are still advancements to be made. As this technology continues to improve and become a more seamless part of VR, so will the ability to heighten one’s sense of touch. Soon, users will be able to feel the untamed hair of a homeless man in the streets of Moscow or the hug of a long-awaited military dad.

The Audience

A crucial element to this emerging medium is also the audience it has the potential to reach – tech-enthusiast millennials and post-millennials. In the past few years, the method of receiving news has already shifted greatly from printed content to digital content. So much, in fact, that 2015 news media saw weekday and Sunday newspaper circulation fall even faster than the previous five years, with a greater shift to desktop and mobile. With only 17 percent of adults between the ages of 18 to 24 reporting reading daily newspapers today, it is easy to see that younger generations are turning to digital news media as their main source of information. Therefore, VR has the ability to build empathy within the younger audience that might be less inclined to pick up a newspaper, but more inclined to pick up a head-mounted display (HMD). After all, building a greater sense of understanding worldwide means relaying relevant and important issues to audiences across all ages and backgrounds.

The Future

While there have been a few experiences illustrating VR’s initial ability to connect people to current issues around the world, content creators and VR professionals know there is still a greater story that can be told. Last year, the industry experienced incredible growth to the visual technology behind VR through new HMDs and camera systems. Now, in 2017, as greater focus surrounding the audio and sensory elements of VR grows, content creators will be able to bring even better experiences where users can see, hear, feel and better understand the conditions of others.

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