AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, we look at whether a lesson learned from virtual reality can apply to the real world. It's All Tech Considered.
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CORNISH: Every day, you can find reports of mass shootings, terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis and other tragedies. Charities say the flood of dismal news blunts their efforts to raise money for victims of these events. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, some groups are hoping realistic VR simulations will make people more empathetic.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: At a recent New York City fundraiser for the International Rescue Committee, attendees could leave aside the mingling and have a more direct connection to the people they were there to help. A few seats were set up where the guests could sit down and put on a VR headset.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: There you go. Comfortable?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Wonderful.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK, I'm going to...
SYDELL: Once they're wearing the headset, the guest is immersed in the world of a refugee camp in Lebanon looking into the eyes of a mother.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I didn't choose to let the children live such a life. But now everything is different.
SYDELL: A few moments earlier, Cheryl Hensen, a Refugee Committee donor also tried the experience for the first time. She says she was in a family's tent watching children play.
CHERYL HENSEN: It's a very effective way to feel like you are there in the room because you have a real sense of these are real people. There's the food, there's the clothes, there's the talk.
SYDELL: The sense of really being there is why some fans of VR have dubbed it the empathy machine. Hensen's reaction was fairly typical of others who've tried the Lebanon experience, says Cathe Neukum, executive producer for the Rescue Committee.
CATHE NEUKUM: We can't bring donors or people to the field, but we bring the field to donors and our constituents and our supporters. And that's what's so great about VR. That's what makes it, I think, such an important tool for charities.
SYDELL: Other charities are trying VR, including Amnesty International and the Clinton Foundation. Gordon Meyer is with YouVisit, which created the VR experience for the International Rescue Committee.
GORDON MEYER: And the goal, ultimately, is that when you take the headset off, you have the inspiration to act in real life.
SYDELL: No one knows for sure whether VR is a more powerful tool for getting people to act charitably, but it is a subject of serious study. Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has been studying VR since its earliest days. He says there's increasing evidence that VR can be more effective than other media in evoking empathy.
But it has to be done right.
JEREMY BAILENSON: What we know how to do well is to create these experience that really leverage what's called embodied cognition, which is moving through a space, looking around, using your eyes, using your body to interact with the scene. And that's what makes VR special.
SYDELL: Right now his lab is studying whether VR makes people more empathetic to homeless people than other forms of media do. One group gets a video or some literature and the other group has the VR experience.
BAILENSON: This experience you start out in your home and you find out that you've lost your job. You struggle to make rent and you use your body to pick items in your home to sell to try to make your rent so you don't get evicted.
SYDELL: Of course, you do get evicted. And you find yourself living in your car. Your car gets towed, and you find yourself trying to sleep on a bus. On the bus, you must guard your backpack from thieves all night long. Vignesh Ramachandran participated in the study. He's a journalist in real life and says he's read a lot about homelessness.
But something about the experience of protecting his stuff on the bus got to him.
VIGNESH RAMACHANDRAN: I just remember thinking, like, oh, my gosh, like, I can't imagine just, like, having to constantly be looking out for your safety just when you're trying to get a good night's sleep. That part was, like, striking to me.
SYDELL: After the VR experience, the participants are asked to sign a petition for the homeless. And the study will look at whether they or the people who read material and saw a video are more likely to sign. But using VR to promote empathy has its skeptics. Among them, Yale psychology professor and author of "Against Empathy," Paul Bloom.
He thinks if these kinds of VR experiences become common, they will be no more effective than any other media.
PAUL BLOOM: Empathy, feeling the suffering of other people, is fatiguing. It leads to burnout. It leads to withdrawal. The best therapist, the best doctors, the best philanthropists are people who don't feel the suffering of others. People - it's just people who care about others, want to help but do it joyously.
SYDELL: Bloom says he may be old-school, but he thinks if you really want to get into the head of another human being and understand them, try reading a good novel. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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