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Embodied Empathy: Bringing virtual reality from the classroom to health care

What happens when you use virtual reality (VR) to understand what it’s like to be in someone else’s body? Can VR create empathy?

These are the core questions being asked by Embodied Empathy, an interdisciplinary lab at VCUarts founded by assistant professors Jill Ware and John Henry Blatter.

They’ve discovered that empathy can come in unexpected places. For example, Ware found herself with a surprising feeling of empathy when she integrated VR into her Ballet 1 Technique course. Students filmed themselves completing a barre combination using head-mounted cameras so Ware could later review the footage wearing a VR headset to help her see what her students see.

Not only did this process help Ware analyze dance technique and pick up on micromovements to give better feedback, it also made her feel empathy for students who are still learning their craft.

“I embodied them to grade them and I regret not doing this the first week of classes,” Ware says. “I learned so much about each of them. VR helped me experience and remember what it’s like to be flustered, what it’s like to learn the newness of ballet.”

Ware’s dance analysis is just one experience in a robust suite of projects focusing on four main areas: classroom-based experiences, medical and community-building collaborations with VCU Health, art-based presentations and interdisciplinary arts coursework. The team has used VR to study golf swing form, help violin students learn fingering techniques and will soon explore how to promote empathy and reduce bias among physicians and caregivers.

“Early on, it became really apparent there were a lot of ways to connect this project to other disciplines,” said Ware.

International origins and partnerships

In 2015, the Barcelona-based studio BeAnotherLab produced a revolutionary VR experience, “The Machine to be Another,” which explored ideas of identity, body image and empathy. While wearing headsets with cameras on the outside and a VR display on the inside, two participants completed simultaneous tasks to simulate what it’s like to be in each other’s body. The project caught the attention of many news outlets, artists and researchers, among them Ware and Blatter.

Seeing the exciting potential to use VR in the classroom, the pair applied for and were awarded a 2017 VCU Inclusion Infusion grant to bring the project to Richmond. As the VCU-based production of “The Machine to be Another” took shape, Ware and Blatter were already thinking about how virtual reality as a medium could be used in the classroom and as a means to connect the arts to other disciplines. They eventually traveled to Barcelona to visit BeAnotherLab to learn about their work with VR.

While in Spain, the pair produced their own VR experience, “Dance with Me.” In “Dance with Me,” a participant is led in a simple dance routine while wearing an Oculus Rift headset.

By design, it’s easy to get immersed in the experience. Oculus Rift VR goggles are hefty and cover the full field of vision while blocking any outside sounds with its over-ear headphones. On the inner display, a participant watches a video of Ware that was previously recorded using a head-mounted 220-degree lens—wide enough to capture the camera operator’s arms and torso, so the participant can see their “new” body when looking down in the headset.

When the video starts, the participant is “transported” from the indoor studio in Richmond to standing outside during an overcast summer day in Spain. In the video, Ware instructs the user to follow her hand motions in a simple dance routine, while a facilitator physically holds the participant’s hand to help guide them, adding real human touch to the experience.

Connecting VR, the arts and medicine

Even though Embodied Empathy uses cutting-edge VR hardware, studies on how to alter the brain’s perception of the self began using much more analog tools. The renowned Rubber Hand Illusion serves as the scientific foundation for much of Embodied Empathy’s work. The illusion was an experiment that made the human brain “feel” the sensation of touch on a rubber hand, using a cleverly angled partition to make it appear as if the rubber hand is connected to a participant’s forearm. Building on this, researchers wondered: if the human brain could create the sensation of touch by confusing body ownership, could VR take it a step further and generate real, measurable empathy?

Several projects connecting arts and medicine seek to answer that very question. In one project, the Embodied Empathy team worked with Dr. Scott A. Vota, and now Dr. Kathleen Pearson, from the Department of Neurology at VCU Health to create VR experiences that will help family, caregivers and advocates understand what it’s like to suffer from early, middle and late stages of ALS. Another collaboration with Dr. Courtney M. Holmes in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling will expand this exploration to other areas, such as addiction and substance use counseling.

The Embodied Empathy team is also working with Dr. John E. Nestler, VCUarts Physician-Scientist in Residence, on a VR pilot program supported by the VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund to promote empathy and reduce bias towards gerontology patients among first-year medical students. The controlled study aims to validate theories on empathy and bias by conducting measurements—based on the Jefferson Scale of Empathy and the UCLA Geriatrics Attitudes Scale—before and after students complete a VR experience. Clinical trials have been completed and study data shows significant improvements, and the researchers see potential for VR training to become part of conventional medical school curriculum.

Connecting the arts and medicine through an emerging technology has been an exciting undertaking for the team.

“It’s about striking the balance of the creative versus the cognitive, and the analytical versus the creative,” said Ware. “There are so many learning spaces within VR. It’s a whole new medium to work with.”