Can Virtual Reality Make You a Better Person?

Professor Jeremy Bailenson stands in front of the computers that render the virtual world seen through the headset.

NFL training camp 2015 is in full swing, but it’s not just players who are practicing their skills. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently visited the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University to learn how virtual experiences could improve training and officiating – and perhaps more importantly, teach players empathy on a variety of social issues. It’s a lesson we should all heed, and one with extraordinary implications for business and society, says cognitive psychologist and virtual reality guru Jeremy Bailenson.

Most people think of video games or maybe immersive cinema when they think of virtual reality (VR), the digital simulation of a three-dimensional environment. But Bailenson, who is the founding director of VHIL, along with a burgeoning cohort of VR researchers and creators, is more interested in investigating how spending time in carefully crafted virtual environments can build empathy and lead to positive changes in real-life behaviors.

Recent and ongoing research finds that immersive VR scenarios encourage “pro-social” behaviors – engendering racial sensitivity, greater empathy for those with disabilities, respect for the environment and willingness to help others. “You literally become someone else and you experience trauma that is personal to them,” says Bailenson, whose work is squarely focused on the potential social benefits of VR. “That makes it so much more meaningful and creates a lasting respect for other people.”

“Experiences change you,” he adds. “My job is to make virtual reality feel like a physical experience so that it changes you and makes you a better person in the real world.”

The market will soon be flooded with VR hardware (for example, Oculus Rift’s headsets), says Bailenson, but the big question is, what will the content be? Banks can use it to compel people to better manage their money and save more for retirement; a weight-loss program could help people realize the benefits of a healthier lifestyle and inspire them to stay the course; an insurance company could build safety modules to teach people to avoid occupational hazards. It could even help us prepare for natural disasters.

There’s seemingly no limit to the potential and power of VR; it will definitively change how people think about, purchase and interact with products and services, and the companies behind them. Businesses that aren’t yet strategizing ways to capitalize on the immersive experiences that it will deliver are behind, Bailenson cautions.

For more of Bailenson’s views about the future of VR, you might be interested in his Q&A interview about the promise and limitations of virtual reality, as well as a recent CBS News feature on how might virtual reality change the world.

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