Virtual Empathy

Virtual Empathy

Empathy and compassion are vital skills needed by those who work in aged and healthcare, enabling carers to know when and how to offer support.

Yet these are difficult skills to train people in. While staff may be sympathetic, able to acknowledge a patient’s pain and feelings, being empathetic and having the ability to understand and accept another person’s reality is the key to building trust, reducing anxiety and restoring dignity.

Two of the main ways empathy is produced are proximity and shared experiences, and there are no shortcuts to these. Until now.

Thanks to virtual reality (VR), healthcare workers are able to experience what it’s like to live with different conditions, helping them understand their patients better and see the immediate consequences of correct and incorrect behaviour.

Research by Stanford University has found VR not only raises empathy levels more than other mediums but produces empathetic attitudes that are more likely to endure over time1.

So, it’s not surprising that a number of companies in Australia have already begun trialling the use of VR for ‘empathy training’ for staff. One of these is Vision Australia, which has developed a VR experience called See Like Me, which is used as part of staff inductions and professional development sessions.

The experience has been designed to encourage empathy, give people an idea of what it’s like to have low or no vision and experience how small changes to an environment can have a big impact on somebody’s life,” says Vision Australia Aged Care Lead Cate Keane.

“These changes don’t just impact someone’s ability to successfully navigate their environment but also their ability to connect, and stay connected, with people. As we know, social isolation is extremely dangerous and we all need to have some empathy and understanding if we’re going to do the best we can to work with people who have low vision.”

During a visit to Vision Australia’s headquarters in Kooyong, Victoria I got to try out the See Like Me experience and see first-hand how it helps to change your perspective.

After putting on the Oculus Rift headset, I’m in a room that is dimly lit but where everything is still visible. The curtains are open to allow sunlight in, there’s an old-fashioned TV (small but watchable), a brown couch, wooden furniture and pale pink walls. Honestly, it reminds me of my grandmothers living room, a little outdated but nice colour coordination. A pretty spot on comparison because I’m told my name is John and I’m 65, sitting in my living room.

I then get to experience four different eye conditions someone like John might have. The first is macular degeneration, which results in blurred or no vision in the centre of the visual field. Suddenly the TV is a lot less watchable. The second is glaucoma, the loss of peripheral vision, which means I have to turn my head constantly to look around. The next one is diabetic retinopathy, which causes black spots to cloud my vision, making the dimly lit room nearly impossible to navigate. Finally, I’m given cataracts, which makes my vision blurry and cloudy.

It’s quite common for people to have more than one eye condition so I’m given cataracts and diabetic retinopathy, and asked to complete a simple task, go to the contacts list on my TV and call my daughter Julie. Except I can barely make out the TV and the light from the window is so bright I can’t turn towards it or I’m completely blinded. Even when I get up and push my face right up to the TV I can’t make out my contacts. They have photos next to them I know that, but I can’t tell what they look like or if they’re male or female. I click on one and hope for the best, but I call my friend Dave instead.

Then I’m shown how Vision Australia helps its clients by making small changes to the environment.

The room is the same but it’s well lit, the walls are now white, making the furniture stand out, there are sheer drapes over the windows blocking out the glare without blocking the sunlight, the TV is a lot bigger, there are bright door handles and the rug has been replaced with one that contrasts with the floor. Much easier for me to navigate around day-to-day.

This time I’m able to quickly scroll through my contacts and call my daughter Julie (who’s very much enjoying her trip to Europe).

After the experience, it’s easy to see how beneficial a VR training tool can be. There’s a big difference between being told what it’s like for someone who has cataracts and experiencing how debilitating the glare from a window can be. This provides valuable insight into what would and wouldn’t be beneficial to a client.

See Like Me is a full immersive experience but VR has been found to improve empathetic responses even when users are placed in the third person perspective2. Perhaps this is because, as entrepreneur Chris Milk explained in a TED Talk, VR connects humans to other humans in a profound way that can change perceptions of each other3.

Yet the connection between VR and empathy is still not well understood. In fact, Stanford University Professor of Communication Jeremy Bailenson argues that VR doesn’t actually create empathy but rather experiences that can cause empathy4. Others argue that empathy can’t be taught, and that VR simply channels sympathy in new ways.

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, it’s clear that VR does provide users with a new perspective and research has shown that this makes people, at the very least, more compassionate.

This could have big implications for the healthcare industry but also any service-based industry where understanding the client’s point of view is critical.

Who knows, maybe one day VR empathy training will be used in all businesses to develop more compassionate, respectful and collaborative workforces.

Visit Vision Australia


1 Shashkevich, A 2018, 'Virtual reality can help make people more compassionate compared to other media, new Stanford study finds', Stanford University, viewed 30 April, <>.

2 Bertrand, P, Guegan, J, Robieux, L, McCall, CA & Zenasni, F 2018, 'Learning Empathy Through Virtual Reality: Multiple Strategies for Training Empathy-Related Abilities Using Body Ownership Illusions in Embodied Virtual Reality', Frontiers in Robotics and AI, vol. 5, no. 26.

3 TED 2015, How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine, 30 April 2019, <>.

4 Bailenson, J 2018, 'How to create empathy in VR', WIRED, viewed 30 April, <>.


23 December 2019


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