Virtual Reality Can Immerse People in News Stories and Prepare Them for Natural Disasters

Its applications can help people feel empathy and give us a better understanding of the real world

5 December 2016

The animated film WALL·E paints a dystopian future in which people are glued to their individual video screens, oblivious to their surroundings. In the real world, similar concerns are being raised about virtual reality. People who wear VR headsets can immerse themselves in virtual worlds and be conscious of little else.

VR headsets provide 360-degree views of digitally processed scenes filled with sights and sounds. Someone wearing a headset and standing on a virtual island might, for example, move her head to the right to see palm trees and to the left to see the ocean waves. A sense of embodiment is created—people wearing a headset feel part of the scene, as if they were physically there.

Some observers say they worry people might eventually prefer the virtual over the real world. But others say it’s more likely that VR will instead help people better understand the world around them, and even themselves, in ways that were not possible before.

Here are several examples of how VR could bring people closer to reality.

  • THE VERDICT IS IN

    During many criminal trials, lawyers show jurors photographs and drawings in an attempt to explain what happened at a crime scene. But it can be difficult for jurors to comprehend details, like the trajectory of a bullet, by just looking at images. That’s why a team at the University of Zurich is experimenting with VR headsets to immerse jurors in the scene and give them a better idea of what happened so they can deliver better-informed verdicts.

  • AN ESCAPE PLAN

    After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, researchers from the Aichi University of Technology, in Gamagori, Japan, designed a VR program that simulates a tsunami moving through a city. By wearing a headset, people can experience an enormous wave rushing through the streets. The goal is to help citizens prepare so they can remain calm and think clearly during an actual tsunami.

    In one tsunami simulation, the person wearing the VR headset is a driver whose car is in danger of being washed away by the rushing water. The scenario, designed to make headset wearers feel helpless, should teach them not to try to escape a tsunami in a car but abandon the vehicle and run to higher ground. To help make the scene realistic, the designers analyzed video footage taken from car-mounted cameras retrieved from the 2011 tsunami and interviewed survivors about their experiences.

  • VIRTUAL THERAPY

    VR also might help people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. For those fearful of speaking in public, for example, the mobile app Public Speaking Simulator offers the experience of speaking in front of a virtual room packed with a large crowd. The size and behavior of the crowd can be adjusted. Would-be speakers can accustom themselves to the sounds a crowd makes, including potential distractions such as coughing and whispering. The app sounds an alert if the speaker spends too much time talking to one side of a room at the expense of the other, for example, or says “um” too often.

    VR is also being used to treat soldiers with PTSD. The headsets bring them back to the sights and sounds of a war zone. The more the veterans are exposed to the virtual stimuli of gunfire and explosions, the thinking goes, the better they can be trained not to confuse them with the everyday sounds of, say, city traffic and firecrackers.

    The technology also is being considered for helping assault victims relive their experiences. Gradually the original debilitating memory will exert less power on their psyche. The same idea is being tried for victims of traumatic car accidents.

    Researchers at University College London found that role-playing using VR can help people with depression by alleviating their negative thoughts and helping them be more compassionate to themselves. Patients observe a talk therapy session designed for the VR experience. Through the headset, the patient sees the session from the therapist’s perspective, and then from the patient’s. As the therapist, the wearer usually becomes concerned about the patient’s well-being.

    Nine of the 15 patients who participated in the study reported reduced symptoms of depression after three sessions—serving as a proof of concept for researchers to continue work in this area.

This article appears in the December 2016 print issue as “Moving Closer to Reality.”

This article is part of our December 2016 special issue on digital senses.

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