As a virtual reality (VR) enthusiast, I have seen first hand demonstrations which encourage empathy. Computer graphics is sophisticated enough where facial expressions of avatars are believable, and if you pay attention to video games which focus on story/narrative, then you can see that context of avatars can be deep, meaningful, and nuanced, reflecting real people and real situations. These characters and their stories can be powerful enough to elicit deep emotions, not unlike how poetry or song can. However, because VR includes visual, audio, and contextual stimulus, the emotions rely less on interpretation, and instead are directly administered through the story telling and the expressiveness of the characters and environment which surround the observer.
Empathy, the ability to understand or share the feelings of others, is a powerful tool that all therapists employ. As a skill, it serves to help therapists navigate through the challenges that a client may be facing. Empathy is critical in client care for its ability to create a therapeutic alliance bound by understanding. Not only can empathy directly impact the therapeutic relationship, it can impact a therapist’s practice by reducing bias, prejudice, and conflict within the therapist from which they can develop and improve their practice. Due to the importance of this skill, developing empathy is a significant focus for many health professionals. Traditional ways of developing therapeutic skills include workshops, conferences, lectures, reading, and field experience. Although these methods have been invaluable and cannot be replaced, what VR could offer in the future is a streamlined, safe, and efficient way to learn and practice therapeutic skills, but also to tinker with our social interactions in a digital vacuum.
Once computer graphics, story-telling, and VR merge, you can have in the palm of your hands a powerful experience that is convincing on a human level. Imagine the avatars reacting to your movements, and paying attention to your actions and reactions to them. Imagine the avatars being able to express without even speaking, simply by using their facial expressions. Imagine having text boxes popping up to explain the reaction of the avatar and why they may have occurred, and more importantly, what you have done to contribute to such a response. What VR can provide is the isolation of these human expressions and an interactive environment from which to build empathy and tinker with social behaviour in a safe and insulated way.
As a practicing counsellor, I can see immense benefits in being able to interact with an avatar to test therapeutic methods. Given some context, how will the avatar react if I did this, said that, or looked away? Of course, the reactions of the avatar rely solely on the ability of the programmer to predict how a human would respond. Once health professionals become part of the development for these programs and experiences, much more can be expected of them.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA