Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) premiered an experience called Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It was an experiment researching whether it’s possible to cultivate empathy through emboding a character who has lost their job, has to sell possessions to make rent, gets evicted, and starts living in their car. It’s designed to break down our stereotypes for how we imagine that people become homeless, and potentially overcome the fundamental attribution error which disproportionally blames people for their situation rather than acknowledging the deeper context of external factors. VHIL is hoping that they can reduce the cognitive load that’s required to imagine what someone’s experience might be like by providing an embodied and immersive experience in VR of walking in the shoes of another person and enabling the process of perspective-taking.
I had a chance to catch up with the writer & director team of Becoming Homeless, Elise Ogle, who is a project manager at VHIL, and Tobin Asher, who is the lab manager at VHIL. We talk about why the unmediated experience of presence in VR helps it outperform other forms of media, how they’re using VR to research empathy, their collaborations with empathy expert Jamil Zaki in exploring the thresholds to empathize, and the other social science work that they’re doing with the founder of VHIL lab Jeremy Bailenson.
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