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How’s this for useful? Virtual reality is a hot topic in the tech world, but most of its uses have been centered around gaming, movies/TV and other entertainment mediums. However, Stanford University is employing virtual reality in an astounding scientific manner that is actually helping people…by teaching them to be empathetic. Designing a VR environment that shows viewers the gut-wrenching circumstances that cause a virtually simulated person to become homeless, researchers at Stanford are hoping to evoke emotional reactions and responses with these life-like virtual demonstrations in efforts to shape and change the way people think and feel about these all too real human experiences.

As part of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), this VR experience was built to help mold and transform human attitude, and hopefully impart those who experience it with a greater sense or capacity for empathy. The lab, which is researching and observing “social good,” employs VR because of how immersive these experiences can be. By seeing it up close and personal, researchers believe it can help others walk a mile in someone else’s shoe – the foundation of what it means to be empathetic.

“The front of your brain tells you over and over again this is not real, it can’t be real,” said Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s VHIL. “But the back of your brain, the one that’s charged with basic survival, it can’t differentiate. And if it looks real, if it sounds real, it treats the experience as real.” This social experiment using VR, which researchers have dubbed “Empathy at Scale,” is the largest “social good” study to ever be conducted by the lab – they eventually hope to document data from more than 1,000 participants and study their empathetic reactions over time through different virtual reality scenarios. “How long do these effects last? Do they continue to produce attitude and behavior change….The truth is, we don’t know, and we hope to find out.”

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