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HomeVideoCan Virtual Reality Make You a Better Person?

Can Virtual Reality Make You a Better Person?

Scientists say VR can also promote empathy. Can this make you a better person?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices.

Virtual reality is the hottest new thing on the media landscape. Chances are even your granny has tried 360 video! Advertisers and media companies are all scrambling to find a way to deliver VR ads and stories to consumers. Scientists say VR can also promote empathy — the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. But can VR actually make you a better person?

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In a nutshell, VR is the “computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.” It’s also known as 360 degree or immersive video.


While it feels cutting edge, this technology has been a long time in the making. In 1838, researcher Charles Wheatstone discovered that the brain processes the same images together into a three dimensional object when the images are set together side by side. This would lead to the ViewMaster popping onto the scene in 1939 – and is basically the same idea used in Google Cardboard viewers today.


Since then, 360 videos have exploded online. VR fans say that it creates a real sense of being there, in a refugee camp tent, or in a homeless shelter. This sense of really being there is why some fans of VR have dubbed it “the empathy machine.”

But how do you measure empathy? Even the simplest of stories can invoke the brain’s production of the neurochemicals cortisol and oxytocin. Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress hormone” while oxytocin is more the “love hormone.” Research at Stanford’s Virtual Reality lab has shown similar responses with viewers after experiencing virtual reality. In this video, we take you inside the lab to learn more about these findings.


VR is gaining traction as a powerful technology for education. The non-profit Digital Promise provides the tools and trains students around the country to create their own VR stories. In this video, we visit one such classroom where students captured the experience of a student with social anxiety, and we see that other students gained a better understanding of the condition by watching the 360 video experience.

If you could immerse someone into your story, what story would you tell and why? What story would they get the most from, within just a few minutes in your world?


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Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior

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Virtual Human Interaction Lab website, Stanford University


Virtual Superheroes Project, Stanford University

Virtual Superheroes: Using Superpowers in Virtual Reality to Encourage Prosocial Behavior

360 Filmmakers Challenge, Digital Promise

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KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio, and web media. Funding for Above the Noise is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Silver Giving Foundation, Stuart Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.