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Research & Design Strategy

Virtual empathy

July 15, 2019

A few months back, I wrote a short blog post about the power of VR and using it within the design process.

It has a lot of advantages: There’s an almost-instant sense of scale and context with minimal investment. We’ve been using VR more and its value both internally and to our clients continues to increase. During this same period of time, the hardware has improved. Moore’s Law has found its way to VR, finally.

I’m the new owner of an Oculus Quest. Without diving into a full-on product review, I’ll keep it short and say that my first non-tethered, six-degrees-of-freedom experience has been incredible thus far. (six degrees meaning I can walk and look around the virtual space). Whether or not the Quest succeeds long term is inconsequential – it has already paved the road for a future of inexpensive, easily accessible VR content.

And already there is a lot of free content available – some good, some bad, and some that is amazing. And just like YouTube, it’s easy to go down rabbit holes, even in VR. This time the rabbit hole led me to a discovery, something I did not learn earlier about VR: that it’s an even more powerful tool than I had previously thought.

Before we get into what that discovery is, let’s take a trip back to Alaska – 1989, Prince William Sound. If you are old enough to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill then you also remember the news footage: Helicopter views of a ship run adrift with an oil slick that went on for miles, and a once-pristine shoreline glazed over with a thick black ooze, birds and seals covered in it. Events like this have happened again and again over the years, and unless we live nearby, we only see them on a 2D screen, be it a television or our phone’s newsfeed. If you’re not there, you don’t really care. We may feel a moment of sadness and sympathy when we see this sort of thing, but we move on quickly -- we have our own lives to deal with.

Just over 30 years after the Exxon Valdez, I am watching a short CBC documentary called Impossible to Contain.

It’s on the Quest, and it’s filmed in 360 degrees. Narrator Zoe Hopkins tells the story of her native community grappling with a 110,000-liter diesel spill that happened just outside Bella Bella, British Columbia in October 2016.

Until I came across this documentary on the Quest, I never heard of the spill. Or the people of Bella Bella. Or Bella Bella, for that matter.


Unlike watching the Exxon Valdez footage on a 19-inch CRT back in ‘89, with the Quest I am now in British Columbia. I am on the ground with Zoe. I am meeting her friends and then I am with the volunteers while they are organizing. They are mad, but they know what they need to do to help. Then I am with her family eating a meal, discussing what happens next and how it will affect their community long term. I can walk along the diesel-stained shore. I may not be smelling the fumes, nonetheless, I felt compelled to help.

Genchi Genbutsu is a Japanese phrase that means ‘go and see for yourself’ – aka, go and gain some empathy. It’s not easy to travel thousands of miles to see the things we need to see, yet I was able to this…virtually. It’s still just video in the end, but to be put in the ‘middle’ of it all gives your brain another layer of information. There is more to connect with when you are standing in front of someone, looking at them, listening to them. Beyond tapping into to our visual senses, VR can tap right into our heart. I don’t mean that literally, of course, I do mean that with VR, we can create experiences that tap right into our sense of empathy.

There’s no question we have a serious empathy deficiency in our country. I don’t pretend to think that technology like VR can solve that. But I certainly believe that with expansion of the technology and with it more exposure to VR content like this, we can move the meter in the right direction. This is what using technology for good looks like; VR is an extremely powerful storytelling tool and powerful stories are fueled by giving people a sense empathy. More empathy is better for everyone.

Thinking about design and tying this all back together, I wonder once again how VR can be used as a tool, particularly early in the process during research and discovery. Let’s say you and I are product managers; think of all the PowerPoint presentations we’ve sat through, listening to the design team tell us about what they saw and what they’ve learned. They’ll say, “opportunities abound!” And we’ll question their findings. Is such a presentation valuable? Maybe. Impactful? Hmmm… I’d throw all of that work away for a good 360 VR experience that really takes us there; one that puts us right in front of the customers and users we are trying to help with our product or service.

Imagine a group C-suite suits of a medtech company virtually stepping into the shoes of a tech who may be struggling to use their equipment in an OR. That exec may have gone in with a cost cutting mindset. And now, immersed in the OR, they are flooded with context and a true feeling of what the pain points for the tech are. They forget about their business problems for a moment and focus on who they really serve in the end.

This is the future we as designers should be reaching for, the way the CBC smartly used VR is an example of how we can all start presenting events, findings and key insights. It’s never going to be as good as being there in person, but VR gives us new tools to connect with others on a deeper level than we could before. With VR, the decision makers can be part of the journey of design/research discovery. They can see what we see and hear what we hear (if you can get them to put that clumsy visor thing on their face…but that’s getting better too.).

It takes a bit of editing skill and some (currently) pricey filming equipment. 360-degree full-motion video is still relatively new and professional equipment is in the thousands of dollars. Considering how it can change the course of a big project, or better yet elevate its importance and speed, that investment may prove to be marginal.

Empathy is a powerful force that affects decision making and where empathy prevails, innovation often thrives. Designers equipped with VR and solid story telling skills will have far better odds gaining acceptance for their ideas from our business-minded teammates., And everyone will have an opportunity to have a truer, deeper sense of their customers’ needs.

That’s a virtual win-win.

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