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Could Virtual Reality Inspire Empathy for Others?

Virtual reality could allow users to step into someone else’s shoes, experiencing things like having migraines or swapping genders

The Age Suit at the Liberty Science Center lets users feel what it's like to get older. (Liberty Science Center)
smithsonian.com

It’s one thing to say that you can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. It’s another thing to actually experience it. Thanks to the popularization of virtual reality platforms like the Oculus Rift, programmers are working on new "games" that take advantage of this immersive technology as a tool for inspiring empathy towards other people.

The Disorientation of Migraines

If you’ve never had a migraine, it can be hard to understand that it’s not just a bad headache. While some people might not take sufferers seriously, migraines can be disorienting and debilitating. Now, using the Oculus Rift, painkiller manufacturer Excedrin has designed a Migraine Simulator that allows the user to experience what it feels like to have a migraine, minus the severe, splitting pain, Sonia Weiser reports for Mental Floss.

Migraines are neurological disorders that each sufferer experiences in a unique way, though many include symptoms like nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and flashes of light. By working with people who suffer migraines, programmers working on the Migraine Simulator can tailor the experience for their friends and family.

As seen in videos produced by Excedrin (one of which is included below), wearers were asked to use the simulator for just 30 minutes. During the simulation, the users struggled to go about their daily lives, with many of the subjects expressing surprise and new appreciation for their friends and loved ones with migraines, Nicole Lyn Pesce writes for the New York Daily News.

Aging Isn't Easy

It’s easy to joke about feeling your age, but explaining the frustration of your body weakening and slowing down with the passage of time isn’t. Now, visitors to the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey can feel what it’s like to get older by stepping into an Aging Suit. As Popular Science’s Claire Maldarelli explains, the Aging Suit is like a robotic exoskeleton that hobbles you instead of helping as a means for experiencing what it feels like to age.

Not only does a virtual reality headset dim your vision and mimic the delayed response time some elders experience with their senses, but it can physically make you feel as if you’re walking in the body of an 85-year-old person with a bad hip. For Maldarelli, that meant experiencing simulated hearing loss, feeling what it’s like to see the world through cataracts, and struggling to walk the equivalent of half of a city block on a treadmill.

Freaky Friday Body Switching

For several years, a group called BeAnotherLab has been experimenting with virtual reality headsets and performance-capturing cameras to put people inside another person’s shoes. In projects like Gender Swap and Being Youssoupha, performers are outfitted with cameras and microphones that transmit what they see, speak and hear into a headset worn by another person seated nearby.

The performer then watches and mimics the headset-wearer’s movements and posture, and even interacts with other people and objects, Aaron Souppouris wrote for The Verge. Meanwhile, the headset-wearer is touched and given objects at the same time, creating a total sensory illusion that they are inhabiting the performer’s body.

Different iterations have put people in the bodies of people of other ethnicities and genders, and even in the body of a Senegalese dancer. Users have reported feeling a surprisingly strong, intimate emotional connection to the performers after testing out the demo, and while it is still in its early stages, it could be a powerful tool for showing people the world from another perspective.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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