Empathy through virtual reality

Experiencing a world of poverty and war without going anywhere


Giancarlo Vittori, 26, puts on a pair of virtual reality goggles purchased from Best Buy. On his Android device, he logs onto ProjectEmpathyVR.com, which is an online experience, designed to put the viewer in the shoes of people growing up in ghettos, living life with loved ones in and out of the system.

He then watches an episode titled “Left Behind”. “I miss going to the park with my mother,” are the first words you hear in the video, spoken by a fragile sounding child. The video immediately puts the viewer in a park, with kids playing and a woman sitting on a bench, watching the children, and acknowledging the heat. The child’s voice emerges once again, “I haven’t been back to that park since she was arrested,” she says, just as the woman walks out of the picture, makes a drug deal, and is approached by police, “you have the right to remain silent,” they say as they slap handcuffs on her.

“Imma call you baby, I love you!” cries the woman, “why you doin’ this in front of my daughter?” she says to the police.

Emily Nolan is using virtual reality to be in her own personal world. Photo by Rachel Dosant

Vittori, a mechanic from Toronto’s Rexdale community says the virtual reality experience had a profound impact on hm. “I’ve never been the most open-minded guy, but watching that stuff really bums me out,” he says. “In my neighbourhood, you see kids just like that sitting around, and getting into trouble.” He adds that now he isn’t as quick to pass judgment on the youth in his neighbourhood.

The video goes on to show this woman daughter visiting her in prison, living in foster homes and eventually ending with another child angrily saying to the girl, “remember, we’re in prison, too.”

Vittori is likely not the only one who has had troubles relating and sympathizing to others. But in his case, looking through the lenses, and into the world of virtual reality led him to feeling a closer connection than even he thought possible.

According to the project empathy website, there are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States – a country that has five per cent of the worlds population, and 25 per cent of the worlds prison population. 25 years ago, 1 in every 125 children had a parent who was incarcerated. Today, 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars, raising the stat to 1 in every 28.

It may be hard to relate to people living these lives for those who have never experienced anything like it, but Chris Milk, Founder and CEO of Within, a virtual reality company, said in a TED Talk released in March of 2015 titled, “How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine,” that VR is in fact the “ultimate empathy machine.”

Broderick Lee, a parole officer in Mississauga, isn’t sold on this idea though. Lee works with at risk youth, as well as men and women who have left family behind after becoming incarcerated. He says that although VR could help people see what it’s like to go in and out of the prison system, it is not a valuable tool for prevention.

“I think it could offer a window into the incarceration experience for youth at risk. However, it is limited as it is not a “real” experience,” he says. “VR in itself is a limited experience. Visually you are immersed, however that is the limit, as mentally you know this isn’t a real life experience with all the complexities.” He adds that in some cases it could have the same type of impact as “Scared Straight” programs in the U.S. where youth on the fence of heading toward crime decide against it.

Lee says that VR could also be valuable as a training tool for social workers, but nothing else. He says it is important that people understand real life is fluid, and will not play out exactly as a simulation would. Although it could help people to better understand situations, he does see VR replacing traditional news outlets, or helping people empathize any more than they would through watching the television.

While this may be, in Vittori’s experience it impacted the way he felt greatly, and helped him to empathize and connect with people in his own community in a way he never had before.

Virtual reality is increasingly being used to show various issues worldwide, which many people in North America have a tough time relating to because they don’t experience these things first hand.

Christina Tropea is a 24 year-old Toronto native, currently working overseas in Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic as a teaching assistant. She graduated from Niagara University Teachers College, and has been abroad for just under a year now. She got the opportunity to experience VR prior to going overseas to teach, and feels that the simulated experience did not exactly prepare her for what she now lives in, but did give her a sense of what people living in these circumstances wake up to every morning.

“People see those charity commercials and feel bad for a second, until the commercial ends, and it’s gone, and they feel better,” she says. “Being there in person, having no choice but to interact with your surroundings is so humbling and, in my opinion, could never be replaced by virtual reality. It’s one thing to see a kid starving on TV, but I woke up to the sound of kids crying for food they don’t always get.”

Tropea says implementing virtual reality into school curriculums could be beneficial simply by getting the attention of kids who are always glued to their cell phones and laptops. Nova Scotians will also be implementing the use of virtual reality into their schools with a look into the Home for Coloured Children that was the site of alleged abuse from the 1940’s to the early 1980’s. Three people who lived in the orphanage, and experienced the abuse first hand will narrate the project. The pilot for the project is prepared for four Grade 11 classrooms by fall of 2018.

“I think it is definitely a smart way to gain the attention of students –  a funner way than just handing out pieces of paper or telling them to read pages from a text book,” she says.

Views on virtual reality vary from one person to the next, but the fact that it could potentially be used as a powerful learning tool going forward is agreed upon by most. Only time can tell what sort of impact VR has one the way the world is viewed, and the way news is delivered.

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