Thursday, January 21, 2016

Virtual Reality to Enhance Empathy

While most of the talk about VR (Virtual Reality) seems to center around gaming, there are some interesting new uses emerging. VR for those unfamiliar with the term generally involves a headset, computer, headphones and potentially other equipment and is designed to put the user in an immersive environment. So, you can easily see how this would be appealing in video games. As I'm not an ardent gamer, up until recently, I wasn't very interested.

Late last year, the New York Times started experimenting with VR content. They sent out Google cardboard to subscribers. Google cardboard is definitely low end VR but you can put your smart phone in it, attach headphones and start to get a feel for what it's all about. In the NYTimes' case, they provided samples where you could feel like you were part of one of their stories. The first one I tried was a candle light vigil in Paris for victims of the bombing. You could look all around at participants in the vigil and hear them. It does make you feel like you're in the middle of the story. It's a different experience than just reading about it and more emotionally involving than just looking at photos. Here's a TED Talk exploring the possibilities of Virtual Reality along this line:

After January 2016 CES (used to stand for Consumer Electronic Show), I started hearing about other uses of VR including this one as reported by the Wall Street Journal: Getting Old? This High-Tech Suit Simulates Aging. Here is VR being used to give the wearer the experience of the more limited vision and movement that is common among older individuals. Might this make a younger person more empathetic toward his/her parents or grandparents?

Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab is doing all kinds of fascinating research. If you'd like an introduction to VR as well as some information on VHIL's work, here's a piece from a 2013 PBS NewsHour report:

"When I think about virtual reality, I think virtual reality is like uranium: It's this really powerful thing. It can heat homes and it can destroy nations. And it's all about how we use it." Jeremy Bailenson

So, what does all this mean for librarians and educators? As I said in the Holiday 2015 Gadget Guide, it's still early days for VR. Oculus Rift is available for preorder now at $599 and is expected to ship by July 2016. The price does not include the Rift ready PC required to run it. There is a test you can run on your PC to see if it will work. Not surprisingly, my work HP laptop does not have the graphics card, memory or processing power required to run Oculus Rift. Expect to need a newer high end PC. So, Oculus Rift is probably more for enthusiastic gamers and early adopters. But you should probably start getting familiar with VR and some of its possibilities, particularly in learning environments. You can certainly check out Google cardboard. It's available in various guises and sometimes via free promotions. And we should all start thinking about how to harness the energy of this new technology for positive goals.