Virtual Human Interaction Lab uses virtual reality to foster empathy for homeless community

Aug. 1, 2016, 1:00 a.m.

Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) is testing virtual reality’s (VR’s) ability to foster empathy for the homeless in their new study “Empathy at Scale.” With the help of the new Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, VHIL hopes to discover new possibilities to further both VR and technology’s positive impact on society.

From June 24 to Aug. 1, VHIL is testing about 1,000 participants at Stanford’s White Plaza and the San Jose Tech Museum under a variety of conditions to induce empathy. Each volunteer participant is randomly assigned one of four conditions, and in virtual reality, participants wear Oculus Rift to experience what it’s like to be homeless from a first-person perspective.

“They see a series of four scenes: experiencing what it is like to go through an eviction, lose their apartment and job, sleep out of their car and eventually sleep on a bus at night to stay off the streets,” said VHIL project manager Elise Ogle ’15.

Throughout the data collection process, the researchers survey participants to assess their levels of empathy towards others, as well as their “predisposition to empathize,” Ogle said.

Lab aide Marissa Werts ’18 explained the three other empathy-inducing conditions, two of which don’t involve any simulations. Participants read either a packet of statistics regarding the homeless population in the Bay Area or read a narrative about the process of becoming homeless, which was adapted from a true story. The third condition is a desktop simulation of the same homeless narrative.

Participant feedback

After going into the White Plaza VHIL tent on July 5 with the expectation of experiencing VR, one Stanford student* walked out disappointed by the condition he was randomly given — the statistics packet condition.

“I did not feel much empathy,” he said, “I am already familiar with the subject [homelessness], and reading a packet of statistics isn’t any different from reading an article.”

Contrary to the student’s reaction, another woman who received the same statistics condition had a different response.

“It was very thought-provoking,” she said.

However, she explained that as a result of how and where she currently lives, she did not think experiencing virtual reality would necessarily have changed her feelings toward homeless people.

In fact, neither participant reported that they noticed a change in the level of empathy they felt towards the homeless. However, a Tech Museum participant who received the VR condition said her ability to empathize with the homeless changed significantly.

“It was a very immersive experience,” she said. “I felt helpless and despaired when I was living in a car. I really did not know how to organize it, and everything was crumpled.”

Ogle explained that this reaction was expected by the research team.

“Everyone experiences virtual reality differently. People also empathize differently,” Ogle said. “The wide range of responses reflects these commonalities [in empathy].”

The future of virtual reality

As VR makes its more widespread debut to the public in the form of VR headsets like Oculus Rift, excitement is growing, but not without a long list of concerns.

“There are concerns about violent stimuli [such as video games] being bad for people to experience from the first-person perspective,” Ogle said. “There are also safety concerns, as when you’re wearing a VR headset, it’s easy to forget where you are in the physical room.”

According to Ogle, however, VR and Oculus Rift have redeeming qualities that not only outweigh their flaws but also give us a glimpse into an uncertain, but promising future.

“In our lab’s studies, we’ve found that VR can be used to increase altruistic behavior, increase pro-environmental behavior and increase empathy for others,” Ogle said. “There are many possibilities.”


Contact Rebecca Mak at rmakca ‘at’

*Editor’s note: Study participants’ identities have been removed to maintain their anonymity as research subjects.

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