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  • Eloise Barclay

Virtual Reality As An Empathy Machine

Virtual reality has the ability to transport a person into an entirely new environment or situation where they can interact with the technology in a seemingly real or physical way. Traditionally utilised for gaming and entertainment experiences, the potential to utilise virtual reality as a tool of empathy is a new prospect that’s been relatively unexplored.

Jeremy Balienson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, believes that, “as you can transform the self and experience anything the animator can fathom, the research shows [virtual reality] can have a deep effect on behaviour” (Alsever, 2015). This has been further backed by the IEEE Computer Society, who state that virtual reality has been successfully utilised as a form of phobia treatment and military training (Bowman & McMahan, 2007). This has evoked interest into whether virtual reality, as an empathy machine, can be utilised as a tool for the collection of charitable donations.

Charities are currently experiencing what is known as donor fatigue, making it increasingly challenging for them to compete for donor attention (McFadden, 2017). The use of virtual reality in a sector that is highly volatile and competitive could reap many rewards for a charity.

The differentiating point of value between virtual reality and more traditional advertising mediums is that virtual reality can help donors see and feel (emotionally) the impact of their charitable giving. This is due to its ability to close the physical and emotional distance between donors and those in need (Hamilton, 2017). Physical and emotional distance is in fact one of the greatest barriers to charity donations, as donors do not feel a real sense of urgency or empathy from simply reading a pamphlet (Jones, 2017). By fully immersing a donor in the “subject’s” environment, virtual reality can fill this gap to increase donor engagement. Once donors witness the impact that they can make, they will become more inclined to take greater measures to help (Jones, 2017).

The United Nations (UN) successfully utilised this unique method of targeting potential donors with their 2015 virtual reality film, Clouds Over Sidra. Clouds over Sidra was the first film shot in virtual reality for the UN, providing a new perspective on people living in conditions of great vulnerability.

The 8-minute clip created by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk in partnership with the UN and Samsung, features a twelve-year-old in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, home to 84,000 Syrian refugees. The virtual reality experience enables the user to take the perspective of the neutral bystander by exercising their sympathetic or empathetic capacity. The campaign’s aim was to, “leverage cutting-edge communication technologies to ensure a transparent dialogue between world influencers and their constituencies, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable populations.” (Hamilton, 2017). The film’s powerful capacity to allow anyone on a global scale to experience life within a refugee camp has the ability to inspire the message of hope amongst not only the millions displaced but also those motivated to act.

After multiple screenings, Clouds Over Sidra raised 3.8 billion US dollars, 70% above the expected value. Preliminary evidence has shown that virtual reality is twice as effective in raising funds (UN SDG Action Campaign, 2019). As a result, it can be argued that this creative technology will be seen to redefine the non-profit industry in the coming years and much more.

Without wanting to detract from the importance that virtual reality has had in the charity sector, there are many learnings that can be taken from this regarding the impact that it can have in the commercial world. Virtual reality is a very powerful tool for evoking emotions in an audience. The creative technology provides companies with a new avenue for story-telling which has the potential to incite empathy within their audience. This is so important in a day and age where machine connectivity must serve social connectivity, the need to establish an emotional connection with customers is vital.

Clouds Over Sidra is only one example of the power that virtual reality has as an empathy machine and its ability to redefine the consumer experience. There is so much potential in the startup ecosystem to be using these kinds of creative technologies to make a unique and positive impact.


Alsever, J. (2015). Is Virtual Reality the Ultimate Empathy Machine? Retrieved May 25, 2018 from:

Bowman, D. A., & McMahan, R. P. (2007). Virtual Reality: How Much Immersion Is Enough? IEEE Computer Society, 36–43. doi:10.1109/MC.2007.257

Hamilton, K. (2017, February 23). Voyeur Reality. Retrieved May 25, 2018 from:

Jones, A. (2017, June 1). Virtual Reality Can Help Donors See The Impact Of Charitable Giving. Retrieved May 25, 2018 from:

McFadden, R. (2017, June 26). Charity Uses Virtual Reality Film to Take Fundraising to the Next Level . Retrieved May 25, 2018 from:

UN SDG Action Campaign. (2019). SYRIAN REFUGEE CRISIS. Retrieved from United Nations Virtual Reality:

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