The empathy experiment: can virtual reality make you a more empathetic storyteller?
It was my first work conference, and I had a rare break between sessions, so I took to exploring the convention center. I came across an unmarked and dimly lit room with black dividers set up around the edges, marking off different booths filled with various tech gadgets. The center of the quiet room was filled with swivel chairs, scattered haphazardly. In the chairs sat people, facing every which way, but mostly away from one another. They were all wearing virtual reality goggles.
It was jarring to see so many people gathered in one room, not speaking to each other—not even seeing one another. (Ready Player One, anyone?)
Although this was at SXSW, one of the largest tech conferences in the world, where virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and artificial intelligence (AI) are expected, it was too easy to envision this foreboding scenario in the real world, as the technology—Alexa, Siri, Google Home—quickly becomes more and more popular in our day-to-day lives.
Technology has countless advantages, but it also elicits many fears, including the fear that people interact with one another less IRL and have less meaningful connections. Technology can be problematic when the virtual world becomes more important than the real one, but when used more mindfully, tech can also deepen our connections to the world around us.
Technology can be problematic when the virtual world becomes more important than the real one, but when used more mindfully, tech can also deepen our connections to the world around us.
The art of empathy
SXSW focused heavily on emerging technology, but there was also a pushback. The Empathy Lab was part of the “shove” to increase empathy and humanity in the wake of an increasingly technological world. The Empathy Lab, a collaboration between the Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab and Refinery29, seeks to position human empathy as a key consideration when designing technology. In an effort to create a positive cultural shift towards a greater understanding between people, the lab examines and enforces the role of empathy in society through immersive storytelling.
But what is empathy, and how can technology help us practice it in order to deepen our connections to the world around us? Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings—it goes beyond sympathy or feeling bad for someone. Empathy might be a buzzword, but it’s an important skill that can lead to personal and professional success. Magali Charmot, formerly of SEEK said, "Empathy takes practice, empathy can be improved, and if you’re willing, it can transform all of us—both professionally and personally.” An ability to empathize can help you better understand others and their needs, and it can help you be a better leader, follower, and friend.
Stories have always had teaching opportunities; they serve as social and emotional learning that can help humanity engage with empathy more. In order to engage people and deepen human connections in a tech-driven world, organizations like The Empathy Lab have taken on immersive storytelling—storytelling that allows participants to better practice empathy. The Empathy Lab hopes to “harness story as an innovation driver and in the process enable humanity to help shape technology instead of exclusively allowing technology to shape us.”
The Empathy Lab hopes to “harness story as an innovation driver and in the process enable humanity to help shape technology instead of exclusively allowing technology to shape us.”
Storytelling in social action
The Empathy Lab recently collaborated on a project with Harmony Institute, called "My Sky Is Falling," testing the waters of immersive storytelling and its effects on empathy. The piece enacted the painful experience of foster care on young people through an in-person simulation. The Empathy Lab found that an immersive experience helps enrich the impact of feeling empathy because it mitigates expectations or preconceived notions—the individuals participating in the experiment had to go through the experience of foster care and as a result, they were able to better understand it first-hand.
A shared narrative
If you think about it, Disney has been using immersive storytelling since they opened up their first theme park in 1955. With characters milling around the park and entire worlds built from the ground up, Disney created their own brand of immersive storytelling. But that’s all changing as well. Disney recently engineered a robotic Pascal, the chameleon from Disney’s Tangled, so that the story could live beyond the screen. With the robotic Pascal, Disney created an experience in which guests become more emotionally invested, even after the movie is over.
Video games are another example of immersive storytelling—stories that have long drawn players into moral or immoral situations where the player must decide what to do. Now, budding organizations like Penrose Studios are paving the way and creating opportunities for audiences to make emotional connections through VR as a storytelling medium.
The Revolution responsibility
Some economists say we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution. As we develop new technologies, we have the opportunity to create a shared narrative that focuses on bringing humanity to the forefront of a tech-driven world. It is here, at the crossroads of people outfitted with VR goggles and The Empathy Lab’s contrasting idea to bring people closer together, that I'm hopeful. A shared and collective narrative is important—people can learn from one another, challenge each other, and explore connections that are valuable.
As we develop new technologies, we have the opportunity to create a shared narrative that focuses on bringing humanity to the forefront of a tech-driven world.
We are responsible for guiding the evolution of technology to be more human-centered, and it’s up to us to deliberately work with each storytelling medium so that we might better practice human empathy.
Amanda Roosa is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. When she's not petting other people's dogs, she's exploring where technology and humanity converge. Find her on Twitter: @mandyroosa.