Using Virtual Reality To Build Real Empathy

By Olivia Chandler

11 January 2018

President Barack Obama watches a virtual reality film.
President Barack Obama watches a virtual reality film. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza -

Human focused research is becoming an increasingly important factor in the development of technology led products, platforms and innovations. This is unsurprising given the success seen at organisations that have put human focused research at the heart of their product development approach.

Traditionally, human focused research has relied heavily on photographs and videos to capture the authenticity that surveys and similar tools lack. Some great examples include the use of Polaroid cameras to capture ‘day-in-the-life’ diaries, which allow designers and researchers to see the behaviours of the people they are working for.

Methods like this are undeniably useful, however by using them the researcher is forced to accept certain flaws. For example, this research is limited to one person or group showing or telling another. Subsequently, the feedback has been filtered to include only what the participants decide, consciously or unconsciously, to share.

Unfiltered Wisdom

Instead of sharing stories and anecdotes about someones life, imagine if you could just immerse yourself in their world and see it as they do. Even better, imagine being able to easily share this experience to help others build real empathy with your research subject. Well, it will not be long until virtual reality allows just that because it is already nearly there.

VR is now a realistic part of the human centred researcher’s toolkit. Cameras and headsets are now affordable and the quality of the experiences they provide is becoming ever more compelling. Whilst it might not feasible to send your whole team to experience the life of someone who lives on the other side of the world, VR would enable them to gain a much more immersed understanding than videos and pictures would ever allow. The empathy then gained from this experience better allows people to understand and fix the problems.

Easily Shared Experiences

The most powerful thing about VR is the ability to share experiences easily. This makes it realistic for CEOs to place a genuine appreciation for the human impact of their company’s products and services at the heart of their decision making process. It allows investors to evaluate opportunities based on a true understanding of the impact they have on people and their environments.

As VR matures we can look forward to 360 degree live streams, 3D depth, directional sound and much more. Each of these features will add extra fidelity to our understanding of the people we are designing for. With this greater understanding, we can build better solutions to more clearly determined problems.

Please get in touch if you would like to use virtual reality to build and share a better understanding of your customer’s needs!