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A&E Editorial: Exploring Empathy with Virtual Reality

By Lindsey DeRoche; A&E Editor
On December 4, 2017

A&E Editorial: Exploring Empathy with Virtual Reality 

Lindsey DeRoche

A&E Editor

lederoche@plymouth.edu 

Employing empathy in our everyday mindsets and understanding what it is like to be in another person’s life situations are goals that many of us strive for. Being human, and sharing a common human condition, is always a common denominator. But we live extremely metaphysical lives. We can never truly grasp each other’s realities, regardless of how compassionate or patient we work to be; the feat is simply impossible.

If you don’t live something, you can’t completely understand it. However, with the aid of psychological and technological breakthroughs and advances, we are certainly getting closer and closer in our understandings.

With the relatively new concept of virtual reality (“VR”), you can experience an immersive, sensory-driven, artificial reality via special goggles, headphones, remotes, etc. I had the pleasure of trying out a version of VR, Oculus Rift, for the first time in Lamson Library, right before Thanksgiving break. I sat down in front of a VR-compatible computer, donned my high-tech goggles and headphones, grasped my small remote and delved into a type of artificial reality that I had never experienced before.

I was amazed by how truly realistic the VR was. Sure, I knew it would be advanced; still, I had no idea that, even when I turned around in my chair, there would be an entire world there, too. I was very aware that I was in a library using VR, but everything I was hearing (sounds like wind) and seeing (cities below me, a field, etc.) had been accounted for and created. This alone was all fascinating and mind-boggling, but there was even more to come!

When I was at one of the menus, deciding which program to use next, one of the choices, “The Autism Simulator,” caught my eye. After diving into realities where I was on top of a skyscraper and outside a house that I would only acquire if I came into some serious money, I had seen how realistic VR could truly be.

The idea of using an autism simulator in a VR, with its sensory-driven immersion, struck me as a chance to get the closest I could possibly get to understanding what it is like to deal with the world through the lens of someone with autism.

Granted, autism has an entire spectrum where an individual can fall, thus only allowing VR to give a glimpse of the experience on one point of the spectrum. Still, I wanted to put myself in the shoes of others, and at least do my best to understand their reality.

“The Autism Simulator” takes place in what appears to be a normal coffee shop. In the VR, you are a patron with autism, who is sitting at the counter. Everything taking place seems normal–a barista makes coffees for customers and people sit in different areas of the cafe. But things began to change each time I clicked the handheld remote to advance the program.

First, I noticed that the elaborate patterns on the wall in front of me, over the coffee bar, became distracting, as they moved over and over. Then, to my right, a man began stirring his coffee with a spoon. The clinking noise was overwhelming, and became frustrating to a maddening level. I felt the same way when a woman sitting behind me, on a couch against the wall, began kicking her heels against the front of the couch.

As if all of this was not enough of a sensory overload, things became optically overwhelming again, as the light-colored hair of the barista seemed to almost glow with a reddish/orange hue.

Please make no mistake, I am in no way trying to say that using a VR autism simulator allowed me to fully understand the obstacles and adversity that a person with autism has to deal with and work around on a daily basis. However, it did allow me to get closer to understanding, to have empathy that was embedded with a sliver of more understanding.

Autism is neurological, and a portion of it takes place within the senses; and VR is completely focused on the senses. Therefore, in this instance, technology didn’t just cure an illness or make a task faster (though these are important advances, as well); it allowed me to understand the experience of other humans, even if it was in a minor way.

Many people, myself included, often see technology as something different from being human, on a rather binary scale. However, advances like VR and “The Autism Simulator” allow the non-human to aid humans in connecting to with others. Humanism and technology can intersect more than I ever dreamed, and that is something I can get behind and embrace.

Lamson Library has VR technology available for students to check out and use. Stop by to try it out today! Visit Lamson’s website at http:// library.plymouth.edu/. 

 

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