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To what extent can virtual reality and machines stimulate empathy?

To what extent can virtual reality and machines stimulate empathy?

Empathy plays crucial role in human society. We empathize with others when we share our personal experience with them. According to Adam Smith (1759), a man is aware of others in order to gain empathy from them, and by performing based on the awareness social order is preserved. By empathizing each other, our society can be formed fairly and morally. It is important for us to understand others and the understanding affects human society. In addition, human beings can empathize with not only others but also characters in a book or a film. They empathize when share personal experience, read a book and watch a film by understand others’ or character’s feeling. Virtual reality can also tell others’ experience or feeling to viewers. Virtual reality does not require read a character’s story or watch story through a screen, but it can create character’s environment and situation around a user. This artificial digital space can transport viewer to another environment. In virtual environment, viewers may feel other’s emotion or situation strongly by being in the same space with a character and closer from a character. To absorb oneself in virtual reality can stimulate empathy. Stimulated empathy with other in virtual reality can make users feel virtual environment more realistic. This will define how virtual reality and machines can stimulate empathy between people, and to what extent they allow people to understand others. I believe that this empathizing can combine virtual reality and physical reality more strongly.



A basic definition of empathy is to understand other’s subjective experience by vicariously sharing the experience (Ioannidou and Konstantikaki, 2008). To imagine participating in other’s emotional experience, empathy can be appeared and you can recognize other’s feelings (Ioannidou and Konstantikaki, 2008).  Empathy can allow us understand other and feel other’s emotion by sharing experiences. Moreover, empathy is classified into two types; empathy to focuses on oneself and to care about others. Staub (1987) names these two types of empathy; former is called participatory empathy and the letter is named affective empathy. Participatory empathy reproduces similar emotion, thoughts and feelings with others’ experience in himself/herself, therefore this kind of empathy concerns others passively (Staub, 1987).  On the other hand, Affective empathy generates strong vicarious emotion in oneself by considering other’s feeling or condition. This means that affective empathy concerns others actively (Staub, 1987). For instance, according to Mehrabian and Epstein (1972), a human has two kind of emotion when they face to other’s agony. First, they feel tightness in their chest by other’s anguish and then they try to relive the tightness. This emotion may correspond to participatory empathy. Second emotion also occurs in the same situation, when someone sees other’s agony, he or she feel sympathy with other and try to pay attention or support other (Mehrabian and Epstein, 1972). It is considered this emotion corresponds affective empathy. Thus, there are two types of empathy; participatory empathy and affective empathy. It is likely that participatory empathy is empathy that we can gain from characters’ feeling or conditions in books, films or plays by reflecting themselves and their experience. Moreover, it is considered that affective empathy can be stimulated when someone experience other’s feeling vicariously. A recent study revealed that the source of empathy occurs is not only from previous experience, but it is also induced by non-verbal contact (Goldie, 2000). For instance, eye contact and social touch can prompt receiver’s empathy. Empathy is induced by vicariously knowing other’s subjective experience, and it also occurs when an empathizer receive non-verbal contact such as eye contact and social touch.

Virtual Reality

1422989297Image2_DavosClouds Over Sidra created by Chris Milk in 2015

In terms of viewing other’s subjective experience vicariously, films can be used to represent it. By watching other’s world or environment through a screen, viewers may empathize the characters deeply. This is because that today’s film viewers can move through character’s brain or mental landscape directory instead of looking through he/her eyes (Pisters, 2012). However, it seems like viewers watch other world through a window that is a screen. This is likely that viewers watch a story from different world because the distance from a screen to a viewer’s body makes a distance between them and characters in a film. As a result, viewers can recognize a difference between reality and film world from the distance. On the other hand, a virtual reality film that requires users wearing a headset can transport viewers to other world and make other environment around users. A project called Clouds Over Sidra created by Chris Milk in 2015 transported users to a Syrian refugee camp. This project tries to focus on a 12-year-old Syrian girl named Sidra and show her daily life at home and school in the camp by using virtual reality. Users can watch her environment without a distance from their body to a screen. This can create an illusion as it like your environment and induce deep empathy. To watch her environment and situation next to her in virtual reality can stimulate empathy with her. It is not empathizing through imaging character’s feeling, but experiencing similar feeling with the character by being in the same environment through virtual reality. To do so, it can stimulate empathy and users can understand other’s surroundings. Virtual reality films can stimulate participatory empathy. Basically, viewers and readers empathize with characters in media such as films and books. They feel participatory empathy through imagining and understanding the characters’ emotion and situation, and by superimposing on their same or similar experience (Staub, 1987). Participatory empathy is created by superimposing other’s experience on one’s experience. Therefore, it seems that virtual reality films that can transport users to character’s world and environment can stimulates the empathy easier than other media. Virtual reality can create environment around users and make experience for them, while other media show viewers through a screen or make readers imagine the surroundings of a character. 360 degree virtual reality with a head mounted display, that users can experience virtual environment, may send users to a character’s virtual reality world, and then they may feel like they see character’s situation or occurrence next to the character in a film.  By seeing character’s world and penetrating into a story, viewers can superimpose character’s situation on themselves easily. Then participatory empathy may be stimulated more strongly than other media by this kind of film.

Embodying Experience

According to Guterstam and Ehrsson (2012), if our conscious is located in a different place from our real body, we disown our body. We can no longer perceive it as part of their body. When the prediction consequences of the action and the actual consequences of actions match, one feels oneself to be the agent of those actions (Kilteni, Grothen and Slater, 2012). There is not an inalterable link between a body and visual sensation. Therefore, it is easy to create physical illusion. BeAnotherLab performed that performers experience another body by using the physical illusion. Gender Swap is one of them. A male and a female couple, who wears a headset, a head tracking, headphones, a microphone and servo controlled cameras, are shown another gender’s view through head mounted display, and they are required to synchronize their movements. If one does not correspond to the movement of the other, the embodiment experience does not work (Bertrand, et al., 2014). Watching other’s view and synchronized movement creates illusion for both performers, and they can experience another gender’s body. Through this performance, performers can experience other’s body by exchanging their body for another gender performer’s body through virtual reality. There is fundamental physical difference between man and woman even though users can feel other gender’s body. This is not only sharing experience with other but also exchanging experience performance. By exchanging their experience and surrounding through virtual reality, users can empathize and understand other more clearly. This illusionary experience is different from virtual reality films. It may be able to stimulate affective empathy. This empathy is an emotional reaction to other’s feeling in order to understand what other feels in their situation. It may be considered that people can feel affective empathy strongly when they experience other’s experiences. The performance by BeAnotherLab is an experiment that performers can feel embodying other’s body through virtual reality. They will be under an illusion that they get into other’s body. Their affective empathy may be stimulated by getting into other’s body and viewing other’s environment and situation from other’s eye level. It seems difficult to make an experience of others body for any media such as a film or a game. Therefore, participatory empathy, that we gain by imagining and understanding other’s emotion, is felt easier than affective empathy and this type of empathy is considered as more general form of empathy (Staub, 1987). However, using virtual reality and physical body in order to create an illusion can generate affective empathy, and the empathizing person may understand other’s feeling and situation deeply.

Gender Swap by BeAnotherLab

Touching Other

Experience of other’s environment is not only way to stimulate empathy but, as Goldie (2000) pointed out, empathy can also be stimulated by eye contact and physical contact such as touching. InFOME is an interface that can connect with users who are different space through a display and users can communicate physically. A rendered shape is duplicated by 900 pins and it can react to user input or continuously update their properties based on an underlying simulation (Leithinger, et al., 2015). This is new means of physically displaying 3D graphics that allow users direct physical contact, and the users can interact by touching physical shapes rendered through the surface of the display (Leithinger, et al., 2015). This machine can stimulate deeper communication for users by being touched the surface that rendered other user’s movement. Touching is an important factor for human communication. We communicate and read other’s emotions through touching to the same extent that we communicate emotions through facial, vocal and body expressions (Berthouze and Jimenez, 2014). It is difficult for users to generate participatory empathy or affective empathy by only touching others through a machine. However, the touching can likely support to generate empathy, while communication with other. Touching other’s movement through inFOME makes users read other’s emotion easily, and stimulates empathy between users.

inFORM by Tangiblemedia


To sum up, Empathy plays a crucial role in human communication. People can understand and empathize when they comprehend other’s subjective experience and environment. Participatory empathy is emotion that an empathizing person feels similar emotion what is reproduced from his/her experience. Affective empathy is also generated when an empathizing person faces to other’s experience. However, this empathy creates emotion an empathizing person instead of an empathized person. These two types of empathy can be stimulated by virtual reality due to the fact that virtual reality is able to simulate the other’s experience and environment for users, and the users can experience other’s experience and surroundings through it. To do so, users perceive empathy more directly. 360 degree virtual reality films can make viewers similar feeling with a character of the story. Performances using embodiment illusion have a potential that performers can experience other’s body. To create virtual environment around a user, the user can perceives a character’s or other’s situation or emotion deeply. Then this stimulates their empathy strongly. Moreover, to touch others through a machine, such as inFOME, also stimulate user’s empathy when users touch machine’s surface skin that is simulated rendered user’s movement. Those vicariously physical touching may also stimulate empathy. Virtual reality and machines enable users to stimulate empathy and empathize more deeply by becoming an information-exchanging tool. They are not an imaging empathy media, such as books and films, but embodying empathy machine. It is seems like this embodying empathy makes virtual world substantial, and combines virtual world and physical world. Through this paper, possible directions for future studies that aim toward a deeper conceptualization of embodying empathy were outlined. However, future studies are still needed to define concept of empathy to understand it more deeply and to represent my design projects.


Bertrand, P. Franco, G, D. Cherene, C. and Pointeau, A. 2013. ‘The Machine to Be Another’: embodiment performance to promote empathy among individuals. Creative Comons. [Online]. [Accessed 19 November 2015]. Available from:

Bianch, B, N. and Tajadura, J, A. 2014. It’s not just what we thouch but also how we thouch it. Workshop on “Thouch Me”: Tactile User Experience Evaluation Methods, CHI’14.

Goldie, P. 2002. Emotions, feelings and intentionality. Phenomenology and the congnitive Sciences. 1(3), pp. 235-254.

Guterstam, A and Ehrsson, H, H. 2012. Disowning one’s seen real body during an out-of-body illusion. Consciousness and Cognition. 21(2), pp.1037-1042.

Ioannidous, F and Konstantikaki V. 2008. Empathy and emotional intelligence: What is it really about?. International Journal of Caring Sciences. 1(3), pp.118-123.

Kiteni, K. Groten, R. and Slater, M. 2012. The Sense of Embodiment in Virtual Reality. Presence. 21(4), pp. 373-387.

Leithinger, D. Follmer,S. Olwal, A. and Ishii, H. 2015. Shape Displays: Spatial Interaction with Dynamic Phsical Form. Computer Graphics and Applications, IEEE. 35(5), pp. 5-11.

Mehrabian, A. and Epstein, N. 1972. A measure of emotional empathy. Journal of Personality, 40(4), pp 525-543.

Smith, A. 1759. The Theroy of Moral Sentiments. London: the Penguin Group.

Staub, E. 1987. Commentary of Part 1. In N. Eisenberg and J. Strayer (Eds), Empathy and its development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Pisters, P. 2012. The Neuro-image A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture. California: Stanford University Press.

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