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The Empathy Machine (First published online, 2016)

The thick ice feels solid under your feet as you look around. The ocean is glittering with the silvery glow of the sun low on the horizon. The air is clear and cold and the breath from your nose shows up as a thick streams of moist steam every time you exhale. It has been a long day and the exhaustion makes your limbs feel weak under the weight of your body. As you start preparing for a restful night, the ground trembles underneath your feet. Suddenly, the ice banks and you try to hold on for dear life. You can’t find any hold and start slipping on the wet ice. With the trained reflexes of a hunter, you push away with all your power from the big block of ice before it crush your bones or knock you deep under the icy water. 

As the dulling waves pushes you away from your planned stop for the night, the sun sets. An aurora cuts through the last glitter of daylight high above you. In every direction, no matter where you look, the horizon is flat. Your thick white fur coat is getting heavy in the dark water. Your joints are hurting from the endless swimming and the cold is creeping into your bones. You feel tired and alone. The freezing clear night is gonna last forever. “Keep swimming” you tell yourself, “just keep swimming.” 

The strongest selling point of Virtual Reality is not taking us to new places. But making us someone else. It has the power to move not only our thoughts, but also our hearts. 

Scientific research shows that our empathy go up when we find ourselves in a similar situation. So the best time to ask for a donation towards ending world hunger is just before lunch, when people are hungry themselves. And the best way to convince you to start acting agains global warming, might be just after you felt the effects of it from the point of view of an ice bear – but on your own body. 

Just like the smartphone changed the world so abruptly, we can hardly remember how it was to ever live without it – so will Virtual Reality. And just as the smartphone started as a fancy accessory but quickly became the platform for our whole lives – VR will too. But contrary to smartphones, the Virtual Reality is not limited to a small square. It spans across our whole world, showing us new worlds or the same world in new ways. 

Earlier this year, at South by South-West (SXSW) – the big film, music and interactive trade fair, festival and meet-up in Austin Texas – I had a chat with Bruce Vaughn, the former Chief Creative Executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. He told me that at the Imagineering labs they used what they called “Portals”. 

He used the gate to Disneyland as an example: It’s a simple gateway you go through to enter the Main Street in Disneyland. On it there is a sign saying: “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy”. And that is what people do. They simply and immediately accept being in a world where giant mice are completely normal, where trash collectors routinely break out singing and where the small shops on the street are not fierce competitors but best friends. Portals allows us to transport people into experiences. 

Virtual Reality, when used right, takes us to places that challenge us and give us food for thought. The effects of a well executed VR experience can linger with you for as long as an experience in the real world. And just like an extraordinairy experience in the real world can completely change the direction of your life, the Virtual Reality has the power to change your view on the real world for good.