Can VR Really Make You More Empathetic?

But virtual reality isn’t just about video games anymore. Artists, activists, and journalists now see the technology’s potential to be an empathy engine, one that can shine spotlights on everything from the Ebola epidemic to what it’s like to live in Gaza...


Bailenson wants VR to become a real-world tool for increasing empathy, not just a finger on the pulse of the country’s undergrads. So he’s in the middle of his most ambitious project yet—a study that will track how virtual reality affects empathy in 1,000 diverse volunteers.

“We don’t believe that VR is going to be a one-size-fits-all kind of glove,” says Bailenson. So recruiting volunteers of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities will be critical to the study. Will VR be most effective for building empathy in privileged people who haven’t personally experienced racism or sexism? In children? In the elderly? The research simply hasn’t been done. So he took his lab on the road—outside shopping malls, museums, and libraries—enticing volunteers with taste of VR. His team has now collected data on 400 participants.