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Researchers hope virtual reality goggles could increase empathy for LGBTQ+ people

Amazed young woman touching the air during the VR experience
Photo: Shutterstock

Apple has begun selling its Vision Pro virtual reality (VR) goggles. Like other goggles in the newly expanding VR market, its technology can help users experience three-dimensional (3D) immersive films that allow them to literally hear and see events from other people’s points of view (POV). Research suggests such films could help the goggles become a kind of “empathy machine” to increase users’ understanding of marginalized people’s life experiences, including LGBTQ+ folks.

So far, many VR films have sought to immerse viewers in the POVs of hospitalized medical patients, workers experiencing racism, and people living in refugee camps. While some researchers remain skeptical about the technology’s ability to inspire long-lasting empathy overall, a growing number of LGBTQ+ VR films are nonetheless immersing viewers in queer experiences as well.

The 2023 VR film Body of Mine allows viewers to inhabit the body of someone grappling with gender dysphoria. The LGBTQ+ VR Museum, unveiled in 2022, allows viewers to hold 3D personal objects while hearing their owners’ emotional histories. The 2019 animated documentary and VR game _Another Dream immerses viewers in the true love story of an Egyptian lesbian couple escaping anti-LGBTQ+ persecution. The 2018 VR film Queerskins lets viewers observe two parents coming to terms with their son’s HIV-related death. Google’s 2016 #PrideForEveryone video project gives viewers 360-degree views of live-action Pride parades in five cities around the world.

All of these projects vary in how they show queer people’s experiences. In Body of Mine, for example, viewers are deliberately given a virtual body that is different from their own and they can explore a CGI animated fantasy world. Queerskins shows live actors into virtual CGI settings and allows viewers to change what happens depending on the objects they virtually interact with. The #PrideForEveryone video only shows viewers real-life parade footage without allowing them to interact.

If these projects are any indication, the number of LGBTQ+-related VR films is only likely to increase in the coming years, especially as the goggle’s technology allows users to start recording panoramic content from their own first-person POV.

Several studies have shown that VR films can increase viewer’s “emotional empathy” with marginalized groups. That is, the technology can positively impact viewers’ emotional understanding of other people’s lived experiences. Such empathy can have “pro-social” effects, changing people’s feelings towards marginalized groups and making them more likely to support these groups in real life.

But psychological studies on VR films and empathy are relatively new, and researchers are unsure which film formats are most effective at boosting empathy, how long-term the empathy effects last, whether such films can backfire and actually traumatize viewers into feeling anti-socially afraid of engaging with marginalized communities, or if the films positively affect viewers’ “cognitive empathy” — that is, their complex ability to rationally understand someone’s perspective without directly observing their emotional experiences.

Some researchers worry that the claim of VR goggles and films being an “empathy machine” is just a lot of marketing hype meant to sell expensive technology without considering its long-term effects on users, such as eye strain, nausea, and fatigue (sometimes called “cyber-sickness”), impaired depth-perception and hand-eye coordination or even visual hallucinations and a gradually distorted worldview that views real-life people as virtual “un-humans” and “non-playable characters” in “a gamified, uncanny valley.”

One review of VR empathy studies said that immersive VR films might best affect viewers’ empathy when accompanied with contextual information and real-life engagements with marginalized people and their circumstances. Activities like encouraging people to role-play as marginalized people or experience their lived hardships could create “a more harmonious space for embracing salient resonances and emotions,” the researchers said. Put another way, VR films may most effectively inspire long-lasting empathy when users engage with actual people in real-world situations.

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