Designing Immersive Empathy 360-VR Experiences: A NERCOMP Workshop 2018

NERCOMP hosted a workshop on designing empathic 360-VR experiences for faculty and IT- professionals in higher education at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT.

Immersing Students with Empathy

Dr. Milena Batanova is developing empathy workshops for teachers to use in K-12 classrooms. Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project offers resources for teachers and families to show and develop empathy for younger children by putting them into other’s shoes. Her research shows that by orienting the conflict towards the person they’re trying to teach, they’re more likely to connect emotionally towards the subject of discussion.

Batanova hypothesizes that by putting people who are learning empathy into VR headsets, the immersion from a first person perspective will act in a similar way as “walking in someone else’s shoes.” I believe with the interactive capabilities of VR, the empathy forces the subject to confront the problem directly and develop a better understanding of the situation. This would resonate with students and children more and add better understanding to particular topics.

For research purposes, a measurable result, such as an interaction or choice made in VR, can help researchers and scholars on empathy and human interaction studies. Through this first person perspective design, VR is a good tool for empathy simulations and research that has yet to be explored.

Batanova’s example of an empathy VR experience is 1,000 Cut Lines by Courtney Cogburn and Elise Ogle to highlight the experiences of a young black male named Micheal Sterling as he encounters racism throughout his life.

Brief Introduction to Unity

Dr. Justin Berry, an artist at Yale, specializes in VR media incorporated into art. He demonstrated how easy it is to create a VR environment in Unity. With the SteamVR plugin from Unity’s asset store, the user simply has to drop in the “Player” asset and the 3D environment that was created can be viewed in a VR headset.

What is 360 Media?

Philip Levine from Cold Flame Studios introduced what 360 media is through a show case of Samsung’s Gear 360 and Insta360. His example of a 360 video is National Geographic’s YouTube 360 video called POLAR OBSESSION 360. He advises that new users look into the “advanced” programs users need for editing and stitching. I’ve found easy apps for smartphone editing in the past along with tutorials on stitching and editing 360 content on the post Dive into Research with Virtual Reality.

Narrative 4- Introduction to Story Exchanges and Activity

Narrative 4 is a global organization founded on the idea of sharing stories in order to “change stereotypes, create empathy, break down barriers, and make the world a better place.” The story exchange activity was exemplified with presenter Lee Keylock and his student assistant. Keylock’s assistant shared the Keylock’s story of his first kiss from a first-person perspective followed by Keylock sharing his assistant’s first camping story in first-person perspective too. The idea is to share a personal story to someone and have them repeat their story in first-person in order to connect to the person’s story as the storyteller.  

This activity was continued for an hour as we were randomly paired up to share stories with strangers as we sit knee-to-knee and keep eye contact the entire time during the exchange. Following this activity was lunch, where we were encouraged to process the story in order to share the other person’s story. We returned to sit in a circle taking turns having pairs share their stories. This activity was to have storytellers be able to reflect on the other’s story more personally and empathically based on Narrative 4’s platform.

While the activity proves Dr. Batanova’s point earlier she found in her research, the application of how we can develop these stories into a virtual world was not well covered. Users designing an empathetic experience need to approach stories that aren’t their own with caution. My story was littered with assumptions that my storyteller inserted at his own discretion that I couldn’t correct due to the “No interruption” rule. Correcting assumptions needs to be included to eliminate reinforced societal ideas. This danger needs to be warned to creators and developers to ensure the “empathetic” experience they’re designing is genuine and not fantasized.

Creating Empathy Scenarios

In the final exercise, we used a group discussion tool known as the Six Thinking Hats to help us facilitate in our activity in developing empathy scenarios. The person wearing the blue hat becomes the group facilitator. The facilitator asks everyone to pick one Perspective card out of the two each person had in their folder. Once everyone described their card, we had to pick one as a group. Using this card, we had to select one topic area such as poverty-homelessness, refugees, school anxiety, bullying, disabilities, or our own choice.

The other five hats begin to take place in the discussion by combining the Perspective card and topic the group decided to cover. By combining the Perspective and topic, the group begins to write an empathetic scenario answering certain questions when “wearing” specific hats.

6 Thinking Hats and Prompts for discussion

Unfortunately, we were unable to complete the exercise as people were leaving half way through the activity. My group was able to decide on developing a scenario from an “Old” perspective focusing on power dynamics between senior citizens and the rest of society. This is a good exercise to get more creative, but it does not facilitate discussion from the voices of the perspectives we are trying to generate empathy for.

No one in my group were over the age of 65 or retirement age when we discussed “old”. A well designed empathy scenario would incorporate research or statements from the perspective in order to avoid assumptions as I touched upon earlier. As scholars and researchers, we neglected research to back our empathy design activity and I would include it in the future if I were to do this again.

This workshop showcased a lot of methods on proving empathy is possible to achieve through VR by sharing another person’s stories. However, the warning on using assumptions or stereotypes rather than research is not mentioned once.  The limitations on interrupting your own story to correct facts is similar to eliminating the voices of those perspectives who are marginalized as fantasized stories are created in their place. Placing people in the shoes of marginalized perspectives can generate empathy in VR, but we all need to take precaution on designing the experience based on research, true stories, and interviews.