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VR for Empathy and Social Change

How real can digital get?

We continuously strive to emulate the sense of a face-to-face encounter with the new technologies. We started with telegraph, moving into telecommunications, later email and various chats, enhanced with emojis, photos and gifs. And although, the later bandwidth developments allow to send through more information bits and better depict our emotions and utterances, digital communication is still far from feeling 100% “real”. Yet, both academics and the creative visionaries of the last century hypothesised that digital environments might make possible interaction, that are more direct and intimate than those of physical bodies. At the time, it might have been perceived as a lunatic gibberish or a blockbuster’s plot. But now, VR is already mainstream and it could change the way we interact and even perceive the world. Of course, hopefully, for the better.

The issue so far with computer-mediated communication, in the first place, is that it is simply not as rich as face-to-face encounters. In real life most of our impressions are based on our present observations, such as the physical appearance, persons’ voice and many non-verbal cues. Most of these can hardly be emulated online, while also a sense of “physical presence” is missing, which inevitably distances us from each other. Moreover, it is quite easy to construct one’s identity and control behaviour online, hence not completely letting out all the possible array of one’s emotions.

In contrast, VR can facilitate a much greater degree of interactivity, namely by facilitating natural behaviour. With the development of better interfaces, graphics, haptic instruments or even mental controls, the avatars in VR could give us the affordances of ‘real’ bodies. This includes both physical (sitting, gesturing, smiling and touching) and social actions (clothes and normative behaviour). Through these bodily practices, avatars expand the modes of expression available beyond explicit textual interactions of chats and emails, recapturing the physical body’s non-discursive capabilities. The medium already allows to convey and perceive many nonverbal cues. For example, my avatar could shrug shoulders indicating uncertainty, or I could wave at you instead of saying “hi”. And of course, Facebook has stated that its long-term goal is create "social presence" in VR that is indistinguishable from a real-world experience. As a part of this effort, we already have ‘Facebook Spaces’ and Oculus is already experimenting with headsets that use cameras to capture a user's lip movements. Similarly, new Apple’s tech, namely FaceDepth, will contribute to the process. This is accompanied by the simultaneous developments in haptics. First trials on giving sensitivity to prosthetic limbs are already taking place! Meanwhile, haptography allows to capture and build a sensory library of touch, which is mediated by the Tactai Touch controller. The latter can trick your brain into feeling either the cat’s fur or material of a slightly deflated football.

And so touch is the last barrier to the suspension of disbelief in VR and very interesting things happen. Academic experiments on embodiment in VR show that by changing the appearance or affordances of the body the ‘self’ also changes. Aside from more engaging conversations and a sense of “presence”, VR also lends itself to dramatic explorations of the types of bodies that humans can learn to live in. As such, our body perception can be augmented with visual and tactical illusions and the multisensory conflict. As a result, mine and yours understanding of body size, location and appearance are surprisingly flexible. For instance, in a Rubber Hand illusion one could easily be tricked into thinking that a plastic arm is their own, by combining a mix of visual and tactile stimuli. This phenomenon is known as homuncular flexibility.

Having a much richer array of sensory tools, VR can provide a better sense of ‘immersion’ even outside the laboratory environment. The combination of high quality visuals, sounds and tactile stimuli, along girth a first-person perspective and visual and motor synchronicity, take the body ownership illusions to a whole new level. In the digital environments, users can literally occupy avatars of other people or even creatures and hence getting to experience not only the presence of others, but what it feels to be ‘the other’. The visuomotor synchrony hence allows people to ‘own’ their new bodies and quickly learn to manipulate extra limbs and tails of their avatars in VR. Maybe we could finally feel What Is it Like to Be a Bat?

This may have important implications in terms of inducing social changes, enhancing education and creating an empathy society. Most recent research shows that avatar embodiment is a facilitator of empathy as never seen before. The visual overlap of body representation diminishes the perceived difference between the 'Self' and 'the Other', highlighting the similarities between the person’s experiences, thoughts, and emotions, rather than the differences. For example, in one experiment Caucasian participants were asked to enter a virtual world in which they embodied African-American avatars. By inducing participants to feel as though their avatars’ limbs were in fact their own, the participants were reported to weaken of their implicit racial biases and stereotypes. As a result, avatar embodiment studies have become one of the most-cited examples of the effectiveness of VR in facilitating empathy. The barriers to empathy are subsequently overthrown with self-other overlaps, identifications with strangers and different perspectives. As a result, the deeply cognitively and socially embedded societal biases are challenged and empathy is fostered on both conscious and subconscious levels.

It is kind of funny in a way, there is so much theory and research out there how computer-mediated communication is inferior or face-to-face encounters. Yet the technology itself may finally help us cross that ‘communication gap’ and become, in a way, more human.

More posts by Maryna Babych

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