"Empathy" has become a big buzzword lately, with political leaders and philanthropists asserting increased empathy can heal America's political and racial divides and spur humanitarian efforts across the globe.
These appeals hearken back to what Barack Obama has long called a national "empathy deficit" — an inability "to put ourselves in someone else's shoes" and "see the world through those who are different from us" — a problem he labeled more pressing than the federal budget deficit.
Proponents of virtual reality, a rapidly expanding technology that simulates users' presence in a new physical environment, feel the medium is poised to mend this gap.
VR's sophistication and applications have multiplied since the first VR machine — a commercial flight simulator patented in 1931 and used to train WWII pilots. Now the technology is widely used to enhance video games, but also to train surgeons, ease pain, sell homes and heighten journalism.
Though high price tags have made it largely inaccessible in the past, new affordable devices like PlayStation VR or the $15 Google Cardboard are making VR available to mainstream users, enabling more people to experience its perception-altering effects.
Chris Milk, a VR film producer, called VR technology "the ultimate empathy machine" that "connects humans to other humans in a profound way" and can "change people's perception of each other."
He collaborated with the UN to produce the 2015 virtual reality film "Clouds over Sidra," which depicts the life of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee named Sidra in Jordan's Za'atari camp. Milk explained the immersive 360-degree experience made viewers feel as though they were actually sitting and walking with Sidra, allowing them to "feel her humanity in a deeper way."
The film seemed to affect viewers enough to motivate action. After a screening by the UN at the Third International Humanitarian Appeal for Syria in Kuwait in March 2015, the event exceeded fundraising expectations by over $1 billion, techradar reported.
And when UNICEF employees used Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear headsets to show the film on city streets, one in every six viewers donated — twice the normal rate, according to UNICEF's communications director, Patrick Rose.
Many similar projects have also harnessed VR technology to help users experience and understand others' lives.
The New York Times' story The Displaced used VR, text and photos to portray the lives of three child refugees from Syria, South Sudan and Ukraine, and Sky News' film Calais: The Jungle gave viewers a sobering 360-degree view of the French migrant camp.
Several scientific studies support the idea that VR experiences do increase empathy.
A 2013 study at the University of Barcelona showed that light-skinned VR users assigned dark-skinned avatars demonstrated less racial bias when completing a questionnaire than those who used avatars that matched their skin color.
The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University ran experiments that showed VR users represented by elderly avatars were more likely to save for retirement and users who experienced colorblindness spent twice as much time helping build a colorblind-friendly website than those who only imagined what colorblindness would be like.
The lab also conducted a study where people experienced life as a cow, roaming pastures, being poked by a virtual cattle prod and eventually led to a slaughterhouse (though the simulation ended before they got there).
The study's authors concluded that participants afterward felt more connected with nature and more aware of their impact on the environment. One individual commented "I truly felt like I was going to the slaughterhouse toward the end and felt sad that as a cow I was going to die. That last prod felt really sad."
Some experts are less convinced of these empathy machines' effectiveness.
Some worry that immersing viewers in a shocking, violent or otherwise troubling experience might alienate them, causing them to turn away rather than get involved and help.
Others feel accessibility is still a barrier. People have to either attend a museum or convention that offers VR simulations or actually buy a VR device before they can experience any empathy-inducing effects.
Andrew Trickett, co-founder of Merge VR, said "at this point, the biggest (challenge) is distribution of the devices. While there is a lot of excitement about VR, there still isn't much penetration of the required technology."
On a more basic level, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom takes issue with the concept of empathy itself. In his controversial book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, which came out last month, Bloom argues efforts to increase empathy, including VR technology designed to promote it, won't save the world. As he told The Verge, these VR projects can be "incredibly exciting" and he has "nothing against that for pleasure," but he ultimately concluded empathy can't further ethics because it "distorts our reasoning and makes us biased, tribal and often cruel."
Bloom argued we are more likely to feel empathy for those who seem similar to us, that it is impossible to feel and understand the pain of a large group and that we can be easily manipulated to empathize with the wrong person — an aggressor rather than a victim. Bloom said empathy makes movies more engaging and relationships more meaningful, but it should not provide the basis for political policy or humanitarian efforts. Instead, he advocates for compassion based on reason rather than emotion.
Part of the contention surrounding Bloom's argument can be traced to semantics. Bloom defines empathy as literally experiencing the same emotions as another person, while other experts' definitions are more expansive, including "having an appropriate emotion (like compassion) triggered by another person's emotion," as Simon Baren-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychopathology, explained in a New York Times review of Bloom's book. Baren-Cohen noted that under Bloom's definition, only a therapist who felt as depressed as his or her patient would be considered empathetic.
But setting semantics aside, Bloom also seems to fundamentally doubt feeling someone else's pain can make a person more compassionate. This claim may open up a larger philosophical debate beyond the realm of technology.
Still, many VR proponents, including "Clouds Over Sidra" co-director Gabo Arora, who said many left the film "feeling enlightened and often moved, and often ready to take action," contend VR can make the world a kinder place.