Debugging the Empathy Machine

I’ve always been an advocate of empathy in my job as a UX designer. This means many things – talking to users, understanding their goals and pain points when using digital products and applying these user stories to effectively design the best solution for products to reach product-market fit.

In the case of Virtual Reality, the article Debugging the Empathy Machine inquires if such a technology is capable of effecting empathy once users put on a VR headset. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, especially every time I see VR booths take over local movie theaters, eagerly disrupting the film industry.


In terms of the participant engaging with VR content, empathy is not derived from that particular engagement with content. Their own stand on empathy, cultural background or social consciousness can be projected into the object, and isn’t directly inspired by its experience design.

In a historical study of how empathy developed as a concept, Gillian Swanson writes that “the imagining of the inner life of others may actually be based on the projection of the individual’s own feelings into the object, rather than an authentic understanding that derived from an engagement with the particularity of the object.”


Hence, they argue that VR is a good medium for increasing empathy, not capable of reproducing it internally but bounded by its physical counterparts, through alienation, or inhabiting of the other. If in films we are to guess the character’s internal motives or emotions, in VR we are able to listen through different physical ways the technology can feel the character’s physical state:

While academic rigor can associate changes in chemical levels, galvanic skin responses, heart rates, and other physical metrics with an experience, it is equally the suspension of normal social conditions, experimentation, and surprise that forge the essential experience performance and real-time improvisation, aspects that are heightened through VR but are not dependent on it.


What is amazing and limitless in the delivery of content in VR is that it can be used to tell very relevant stories in a structured yet very open-ended way. The user taking on someone else’s body, and making decisions other than what he/she would normally do is quite an experience that has the capability to form this relationship between the performer and the participant in a more intimate, raw and even physical manner. The Machine to be Another also doesn’t consider itself a scripted performance as the user falls into another person’s body and is invited to co-design the experience.

Unlike self-contained VR projects, where the visual, environmental, and narrative experience is complete and is similar to a game or video, The Machine to be Another can be more accurately described as a protocol (or “embodiment system”). This means that there is no virtual world or 3d models, no prerecorded 360 video. “Embodiment system” is the creative term that describes how the experience is a formalized, structured interaction that has some cues, some technological aids, but is not fully scripted.


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