Modern virtual reality technology creates truly immersive experiences and allows researchers to expose people from different sides of a conflict to their counterparts’ perspective with unprecedented realism. But while experiments demonstrate that VR enhances empathy among participants, experts also warn of potential abuse
A VR user at the Advanced Virtual Reality lab at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya | Photo: Oded Raanan
You wipe the sweat off your brow and level your weapon again at the rioting crowd barely one hundred meters away. For the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Palestinians have gathered every Friday at the international border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. But today is different. It is May 14, 2018. The Americans are set to move their embassy to Jerusalem—on the same day the Palestinians are commemorating the Nakba, their day of disaster and defeat, which marks the days when the State of Israel announced its independence 70 years prior.
Today’s protest, you and your fellow soldiers have been warned, will be the largest thus far in this wave of protest, and will certainly be violent. Thousands have already showed up, setting tires on fire, hurling insults and rocks, and damaging the border fence. Intelligence reports warn that under the auspices of the protest, militants armed with small arms, grenades and IEDs will attempt to launch attacks against Israeli communities near the border.
A few seconds ago, hundreds simultaneously charged the border fence. Your orders are clear: no one is to cross into Israeli territory, and there is no doubt—if they topple the security fence, you and your friends will be the first casualties. You lay your sights on a man in his twenties, apparently unarmed but violently rocking the fence.
Do you take the shot?
Israel received worldwide condemnation for its response to the Palestinian demonstrations on May 14th, 2018, when over 60 were killed and more than a thousand injured, many by live gunfire. Yet what would happen if those critics were placed in a simulation replicating the day’s conditions? Would some change their opinions if they saw the situation through the eyes of that young Israeli soldier, covered in sweat, eyes stinging from smoke, and fearing for his life in the face of thousands of angry protesters, some of whom had weapons? In the same vein, would the Israeli response be different if its policymakers could experience the desolation of the Gaza Strip, walk the streets of its poverty-stricken cities, and witness the lives led by its residents?
Until recently, this was merely a hypothetical scenario. But the recent emergence of advanced virtual reality (VR) technology, which allows users to experience a story at photorealistic levels, may be changing that. VR is providing citizens and decisionmakers alike the opportunity to gain experiential insights into other people’s viewpoints and lives in a way that is only beginning to transform fields such as journalism, advocacy, conflict resolution, and policy making. In this essay we will survey the potential benefits and risks of this increasingly popular technology.
Virtual Reality: Toward Total Immersion
Virtual reality technology emerged about 50 years ago, although its original hardware would be totally unrecognizable by today’s standards. Hailed as the beginning of a new era in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, VR thereafter disappeared from public view. In 2014, Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, a company that manufactures home VR kits, marked VR’s comeback. Increases in computer processing power and improvements in screen resolution enabled the first wave of high-powered VR headsets to hit the market in 2016, and the age of consumer VR truly began.
At its essence, VR is a reality simulator: it provides people with authentic experiences that evoke realistic responses. For proof, just ask anyone who has put on a VR headset and felt fear arise from standing atop a skyscraper. Even if the scenario is virtual, people find themselves reflexively reacting as if it were real.
According to Jaron Lanier, who first coined the term “virtual reality,” the real power of VR is that it allows one to transcend the bounds of reality, into the impossible. While VR still awaits the paradigm shift that will revolutionize its societal usage, it already offers an experience unlike any other provided by technology. This is because, if done properly, VR substitutes computer-generated sense perceptions for real ones.
VR provides people with authentic experiences that evoke realistic responses. Ask anyone who has put on a VR headset and felt fear arise from standing atop a "skyscraper"
Consequentially, because perception of one’s environment is a multi-sensory experience that entails the entire body, the user’s brain infers that the sensory data provided by the virtual context is real—even when she consciously knows that it is not. By relating the user’s movement to sensory stimulation, VR delivers a literally overpoweringly realistic simulation. To achieve this, systems typically include wide field-of-view vision and high-resolution displays, head tracking, and near real-time synchronization between head movement and display (low-latency), as well as stereo sound.
To create such an immersive experience, VR does not have to imitate real life. Even a fantastical environment can induce a user’s brain into apprehending that she is really perceiving what she is virtually experiencing. Known as presence, this illusion of “being there” is the key to VR’s profound impact. Presence allows VR to override one’s rational brain. Despite actively knowing that one is in a virtual reality simulation, the felt sense of presence makes the environment and the experiences in it real.
Virtual Reality and its Social Impact
Many social scientists contend that it is humans’ empathetic quality that has enabled them to engage cooperatively with outgroups in an increasingly peaceful manner. And studies have shown that “perspective taking” is one of the best ways to cultivate empathy, as it reduces the gap between oneself and the other.
VR is very good at promoting perspective taking. Indeed, in comparison to two-dimensional viewing, VR has been shown to facilitate greater engagement and higher levels of empathy. Recognizing this, researchers and educators are already exploring how to design training systems that utilize VR to cultivate empathy-related skills.
One powerful approach is virtual embodiment, which uses VR to induce a full-body transfer whereby the user’s physical body is replaced with a virtual one. Just a few minutes of concomitantly moving with a virtual body, often paired with an illusion where the user views the virtual body in a virtual mirror and/or synchronous visual-tactile stimulation, can lead the user to develop a strong sense that the virtual body is one’s own. More surreally, this VR methodology can allow a person to “become” someone else, quite literally, for the virtual body does not have to resemble the user’s real one—it can, for example, be of a different age, gender or race. Importantly, such virtual transformations of the self have a profound psychological impact on the user; and these effects can later persist outside of VR.
Becoming the other: an Israeli VR user looks at his Palestinian avatar | Photo: Courtesy of the authors
VR thus allows people to experience otherwise inaccessible and unexpected possibilities, at least temporarily. Importantly, methods such as virtual self-transformations often profoundly affect the user psychologically, and these effects can persist after the VR simulation terminates.
This has led researchers to question whether, and how, VR might be used to effect societal change. Researches have used VR to study subjects’ implicit attitudes toward a range of human traits, most prominently age and race. Researchers at Stanford University, for example, made subjects’ reflections in a virtual mirror look older to induce the subjects to experience themselves as elderly. This in turn led participants to regard the elderly more positively and feel more empathy toward them. At the University of Barcelona, researchers found that prompting white participants to experience a black virtual body reduced racial bias, with the bias reduction persisting one week later.
More than changing implicit attitudes, such virtual race transformations can change people’s behavior. A recent study found that white participants embodied in black virtual bodies were more likely to display mimicry toward another black virtual character than a white virtual character, thus inversing the common own-race bias.
Virtual race transformation reverses racial in-group bias | Source: Video
Making Stories Hyper-Realistic With Immersive Journalism and Diplomacy
Because VR users are fully immersed in the virtual environment, sometimes even as they physically move, VR offers a degree of freedom far beyond traditional reporting and filmmaking. Whereas traditional media can only project an image or video onto a screen, VR effectively places the viewer in the middle of the action. With traditional media formats, directors and journalists have discretion to limit what they show their viewers. In contrast, according to Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, in VR, “you’re looking everywhere, and I am just telling you generally what the film is about, but you, the viewer, direct the film yourself. You have the choice to look wherever you want.”
Chinoy uses VR in her new documentary series “Look but with Love” to transport viewers to her native Pakistan, where she explores the lives of her fellow citizens who are transforming the social and political dynamics of their local communities. Equally striking is “The Sun Ladies,” a VR story about life on the front lines for a group of Yazidi women who escaped ISIS to create a female-only fighting force to combat their aggressors.
Other filmmakers use VR to garner international support for humanitarian crises. Since January 2015, the United Nations Virtual Reality Series (UNVRS) has harnessed the power of empathy to show the human story behind development challenges. The project seeks to give decisionmakers and global citizens a deeper understanding of pressing issues around the world, in turn sparking action. By showcasing relevant VR experiences at high-level UN meetings, the campaign gives voice to vulnerable communities.
The most famous of these “experiences” is “Clouds over Sidra,” a film documenting the life of a young Syrian girl in a Jordanian refugee camp, which premiered at the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos and was later screened at Sundance, TED, and the World Education Summit. Intended for a general audience, the project was primarily intended to affect influential viewers. As one of the project’s creators, Gabo Arora, said, “We live in a world of decisionmakers, unfortunately, who control the lives and destinies of other people. I don’t think all of them truly know what [Sidra’s life] is like and, in giving them this experience, I’m hopeful they will be moved to weigh greater the consequences of their decisions.”
A VR user watches "Project Syria" at the Advanced Virtual Reality lab, IDC Herzliya | Photo: Oded Raanan
Eventually shown in over 40 countries and translated into 15 languages, “Clouds over Sidra” raised $3.8 billion—over 70% more than expected. Additionally, one in six people who saw the film donated to the Syrian Refugee Crisis—over twice the normal rate. Among the dignitaries who have experienced the film are former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, former US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
Building off its success, the UN commissioned “My Mother’s Wing” one year later, a film focusing on a Palestinian family that lost two sons in the Summer 2014 war with Israel. As producer Patrick Milling Smith said, “beneath the surface however, it is about identifying the factors that contribute to cycles of violence, and how to disrupt them.” According to Arora, who also co-wrote this film, “we wanted to take it to the next level and see if VR can be a tool for peace-building in the world’s most intractable conflict.”
To date, the use of virtual reality in the fields of diplomacy, advocacy, and conflict resolution has been primarily limited to raising awareness and empathy for social and political causes, including for fundraising campaigns. But that will likely soon change; the UN is currently incorporating VR into other diplomatic efforts. During the final months of his tenure as UN Secretary General in 2016, Ban Ki-Moon granted a VR crew unprecedented access to his global travels across more than ten countries. Taking viewers to some of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the resulting VR film, “Home,” offers a rare, “in-person” and behind-the-scenes look at refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jordan, and Lebanon, where Ban shares details of his childhood as an internally displaced youth with local children.
Ban’s successor, Antonio Guterres, has added more stories to the UN’s VR repertoire to continue to advocate for humanitarian aid and peacekeeping missions. In marking its 70th anniversary, the UN sought to demonstrate the global impact of its uniformed and civilian peacekeepers through “Under the Blue Helmet,” a virtual reality film made in partnership with Time.com. “Under the Blue Helmet” was released the same year the Liberia mission was completed and the year after the conclusion of the Ivory Coast mission, but it was intended as more than just a commemoration of past successes. Timed with the launch of the Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) initiative, it also promoted Guterres’ new effort “to refocus [the UN’s] work with realistic expectations; to make missions safer and more agile; and to mobilize well-structured, well-equipped, well-trained forces.”
Recent research has shown that just changing the camera perspective in a VR film can significantly increase empathy towards the opposing side in a violent conflict
Diplomatic efforts have also been advanced via partnership with Shared Studios, an immersive audiovisual company “carving wormholes across the world” that connect you with someone in a distant portal as if you were face-to-face. While not all portals incorporate virtual reality, they typically feature life-size displays (instead of headsets) to create immersive environments that feel spatially continuous. After the premier of “Clouds over Sidra,” for example, one such portal at the UN was connected to a booth in the Zaatari refugee camp, facilitating anonymous conversations between world leaders and refugees.
Portals have now been built in over twenty locations on six continents, and come in many forms—including shipping containers, inflatable tents, and school buses—to accommodate a variety of placement needs. Despite the project’s virtual nature, its “profoundly beautiful,” “mind blowing,” “intimate – awkward – human,”—as it has been described by various participants—has been experienced by heads of state and ambassadors, refugees and genocide victims alike.
A team of researchers at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya is currently exploring new cinematographic techniques in VR films to induce empathy in the context of violent intergroup conflicts. In a recent project (conceptualized and produced by Daniel Landau), 360-degree video techniques were used to film a staged "encounter" between Israeli soldiers and a Palestinian couple at a checkpoint. The scenario can either be experienced from the Palestinians’ or the Israeli soldiers’ point of view. Initial research findings are promising - even such a simple technique of changing the camera perspective in a VR film can significantly increase empathy towards the opposing side in a violent conflict.
The "Checkpoint" short film from both perspectives - Israeli and Palestinians | Photos: The Checkpoint Project (courtesy of the authors)
Critiques of Virtual Reality
A review of VR’s potential benefits should not ignore some of the very real concerns some critics have expressed as its applications continue to grow.
Researchers highly extol VR’s ability to induce empathy in its users. But this assumes that eliciting empathy is a worthy goal. Empathy has its opponents, most notably the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who, in 2016, released the book “Against Empathy – The Case for Rational Compassion.” Bloom argues that empathy functions like a biased spotlight: it shines a light on the suffering of certain people while leaving others’ hidden from the viewer’s conscience. Known as the “the identifiable victim effect,” this can perversely lead the viewer to prioritize one victim over scores, even hundreds, of others. The effect is compounded by humans’ inability to process abstract and statistical costs, in contrast to immediate and tangible phenomena.
Empathy is problematic for other reasons too, for instance because the desire to relieve short-term suffering can lead to devastating long-term consequences. Children beggars, for example, play tourists’ heart strings for funds—but those funds are typically appropriated by criminal organizations that abuse, wound, and enslave thousands of impoverished children.
The highly engrossing nature of VR thus begets a platform that can be potentially easily exploited by fraudulent or felonious individuals and groups. For example, it is not far-fetched to envision a viral online campaign capturing the hearts of millions—similar to Kony 2012, but with the added authenticity of VR—that defrauds unsuspecting but well-intentioned donors . Similarly, highly persuasive VR advocacy could potentially mislead decisionmakers, convincing them to focus their attention and funds on emotionally charged but comparatively minor social issues. It could have the same effect on constituent sympathies, compelling politicians to shift public resources away from larger problems—a concern many had with Kony 2012.
Of course, well-intentioned donors are already suspect to fraudulent “donation” campaigns—after all, Kony 2012 went viral on social media long before VR headsets were widely available. And Bloom’s problem is with empathy itself. The root problem at issue is human irrationality and susceptibility to fraud. But the enhanced effects of VR compound these foibles. The deep emotions that virtual reality often arouses present a liability because it makes our human vulnerabilities even easier to exploit.
It is perfectly plausible that radical groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda may soon use photorealistic VR for ideological and sensational propaganda and recruitment
The real concern is therefore the extent to which VR can influence and impact viewers. Yet this charge, too, is not exclusive to VR. It has been invoked each time new media technologies have evolved—from the reproduction of photographic images with photogravure in the 1870’s to the use of color television in the Vietnam War. The difference, again, lies in the potency of the medium. As Stanford professor and VR authority Jeremy Bailenson said, “In VR, which actually feels real, the potential dangers for misinformation and emotional manipulation are exponentially greater.” The depiction of an atrocity in VR can thus make the viewer feel like a personal witness, conceivably even suffering vicarious trauma.
Recognizing how powerfully VR affects viewers’ emotions, it makes sense to worry about how bad actors might use VR to effect psychological trickery. Terrorist organizations worldwide have already proven themselves exceptionally skilled at using traditional social media technologies to recruit new members. It is perfectly plausible that radical groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda may soon use photorealistic VR for ideological and sensational propaganda and recruitment. Security apparatuses and political bodies must continue to be heedful regarding villainous uses of this technology to prevent crimes against their citizens.
Amid already commonplace concerns that foreign bodies are interfering with state election and manipulating public perceptions, the misuse of VR poses dire implications for the health and future of democratic governmental structures. According to Franklin Foer, between fake-but-realistic news clips and fabricated videos, the world is approaching “the collapse of reality”—and virtual reality is its “apotheosis.” It is thus the responsibility of policymakers and citizens alike to uphold democratic norms and practices; they must remain vigilant against those who attempt to erode their trust in their institutions, and worse, their fundamental grasp of reality.
VR does not just change users’ understanding of reality while they are inside of the virtual environment—its profound effects can be long lasting, and can do much to reduce outgroup bias and connect people around the world. And that is just a small sampling. The opportunities for research into human behavior and decision making in a simulated, yet authentic, environment abound.
Recognizing VR’s impact, policymakers should fund more projects like “Under the Blue Helmet” to promote their policy agendas. Moreover, they should advance projects designed to increase outgroup empathy, particularly in places where group members are unable to interact in person. Researchers should continue to investigate the efficacy of such projects, as well as expand their use of virtual reality in empirical inquiry.
Yet excitement must be paired with caution. In its current embryonic state as a diplomatic tool, virtual reality has most prominently been used to raise awareness and fundraise. It is already transforming humanitarian and environmental advocacy. Used to amplify the voices of formerly silent global citizens, in the future VR could bring their perspectives into decision-making processes. But while technologists continue to improve both VR hardware and software, the recording and editing of ever more photorealistic VR will become quick and easy, akin to current digital photoshopping—whose widespread usage—and abuse—already plagues the public across domains.
Such manipulations, deliberate and incidental, will only further destroy the world’s faith in a shared reality. Humans, writes Foer, “have displayed a near-infinite susceptibility to getting duped and conned—falling easily into worlds congenial to their own beliefs or self-image, regardless of how eccentric or flat-out wrong those beliefs may be.” If ever a false public relations campaign tarnishing a country, organization, or individual’s reputation were to be released in virtual reality, it could be irrevocably damaging.
It will be the responsibility of policymakers and the media to enforce legitimate portrayals of reality in the new VR world. The consequences for failing to do so will be dire. As the VR pioneer Jaron Lanier wrote in his recently published memoir, “Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness. Virtual reality will test us. It will amplify our character more than other media ever have.”
 Yossi Hasson, Noa Schori-Eyal, Daniel Landau, Béatrice Hasler, Jonathan Levy, Doron Friedman, and Eran Halperin
Matan Rubin recently completed his MA in Social Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. He also holds an MA in Public Policy from Tel Aviv University.
(Photo courtesy of the author)
Béatrice Hasler (PhD, University of Zurich) is a Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. She specializes in the psychology of virtual reality and its social applications, with a particular focus on VR-based conflict resolution.
(Photo courtesy of the author)