Can Virtual Reality Be Used to Teach Empathy?

Virtual reality stories like “Allumette” can give insight into others' perspectives

Topics: Future of Learning

The virtual reality (VR) story “Allumette” caused me and my wife to experience a range of emotions – from excitement to tears. The VR experience focuses on love, sacrifice and a bond between a young girl and her mother. While we might have only experienced the story virtually, our reactions were quite real.

In Leveraging Digital Depth for Responsive Learning Environments, Jason Swanson and Katherine Prince discuss how future technologies might be utilized in the classroom to create more responsive learning environments. One such scenario focuses on the possibility of using VR to create immersive stories that allow education decision-makers to “walk in the shoes of others” in order to increase empathy for the students and families whom their decisions affect.

While this may sound like something out of a futuristic novel, it’s what I experienced while watching Allumette.

Using the VR system transported me to another time and place. Completely surrounded by the story’s setting through sights and sounds. I was able to observe the daily life of a young girl and her mother. Not through their eyes, but through my own. I was in control of what I saw. I could peer under bridge or push my face through walls to observe what was happening inside a home. The feeling of actually being in the world and situations of the characters brought the story to life. I could feel the characters joy (or pain) more deeply because I was actually there with them.

What if decision-makers, through virtual reality, experienced being poor or homeless. Experienced being a high school child caring for their siblings so your mother could work at night, all while still trying to do your homework. Do you think it might change the way the approach their communities?

Now imagine a classroom where students are not only reading a story or historical account but are actually able to be present at the event. How much more might they remember about the story by having experienced it instead of just reading it? How much deeper might their emotional connections be? For me, it was an incredibly moving experience. So much so that I felt obligated to share with others.

In a world where we’re becoming overly “social” as we become increasingly more isolated, a little empathy for other’s situations might go a long way.

In Leveraging Digital Depth for Responsive Learning Environments: Future Prospects for Wearables, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, we  explore the potential for wearables, augmented reality and virtual reality to help create more responsive learning environments.