In 2004, Cathy Hackl may have watched more violent videos than anyone in America. While working in video production at CNN, part of Hackl's job was to watch the raw video coming in from the Iraq War and flag sensitive material so that the cable channel's local partners could warn viewers before they saw something graphic. In order to put this protection in place for viewers, Hackl had to immerse herself in such images and scenes for hours at a time. She sifted through beheadings, the bodies of soldiers being dragged, anything that might set off cable's red flags. It was exhausting and traumatizing, but Hackl was most disturbed by how it began to change her.

"When you do that kind of job, you kind of turn your humanity switch off a little bit," she says. She became desensitized to these horrific images. Her ability to empathize took a backseat — it had to.

It wasn't until two years ago — more than a decade after she began doing that work — that she had the visceral experience of feeling that switch turn back on. She had been experimenting with 360 video, a technique that allows the viewer to feel surrounded by whatever they're watching. While attending a tech conference, she donned an HTC VIVE virtual reality headset and found herself in a solitary confinement cell.

"Within a couple of minutes, I was completely claustrophobic," she says. The experience, called 6x9, was created by The Guardian. In 6×9, while wearing a VR headset, the viewer feels what it's like to be in solitary confinement. They are transported to a tiny cell block and are completely immersed, for a time, in that lonely, frightening atmosphere.

From the trailer of "6×9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement" | (The Guardian/Courtesy Narratively)

Even those watching in an internet browser can manipulate the video as if they are moving around inside it. In journalistic endeavors, the goal is always to help people understand the experiences they're learning about, and with empathy can come a host of other feelings and effects.

"When I took the headset off, something clicked," says Hackl. "The humanity switch turned back on. I felt like I was actually walking in someone else's shoes."

Hackl says she didn't just feel sorry for people in solitary confinement after this visceral experience, she wanted to do something for them. After she took the headset off, she decided she needed to be part of this VR movement. She is now a consultant for some of the top virtual reality and augmented reality studios making experiences with a social impact focus. She is on the board of Virtual Relief, a nonprofit that uses the technology to help distract, entertain, and rehabilitate homebound seniors and hospitals patients, and she considers herself an evangelist for the power of this technology.

The experience Hackl described is what some social scientists call compassionate empathy, which moves a person to respond to another's emotional state with some kind of action, as compared with cognitive empathy, also known as "perspective-taking," which is simply understanding another person's mental state. Scientists believe most people are born with the ability to empathize with others, but as we spend less and less time in face-to-face communication, the nuances can become lost. Researchers have worried for decades about what television, video games, cell phones, social media, and now augmented and virtual reality would do to our ability to connect with one another. While some studies have shown a correlation between excessive technology use and a decline in social connection, there is a growing movement recognizing that if it's possible to decrease people's capacity for empathy using technology, it must be possible to do the opposite as well.

(Vincent Tullo/Courtesy Narratively)

VR technology has been evolving for decades, but until relatively recently it was considered too expensive and technically demanding for most uses outside of video games. It required a heavy and pricey collection of camera equipment, plus software, coding, and digital animation expertise. Not to mention the fact that anyone who wanted to experience VR needed to wear a heavy, clunky headset. In 2015, tech entrepreneur and artist Chris Milk gave a TED Talk in which he called virtual reality "the empathy machine" for its capacity to put people more directly in others' shoes than any other kind of technology.

At the time, many still saw this as hyperbole. There were still few companies outside the gaming world that felt comfortable investing in content or hardware that was so inaccessible. But now, as both headsets and the technology to produce VR experiences have become cheaper and easier to use, activists and nonprofits are starting to really test the empathy machine hypothesis. The United Nations has developed an experience that allows people to get a glimpse of life as Syrian refugees; multiple VR experiences give viewers the feeling of speaking directly to sexual assault or Holocaust survivors; nonprofits are using the Android app Within to tell VR stories that raise awareness and sometimes money for social and environmental causes.

One question remaining is whether this can create change at scale. Hackl admits that a lot of what's out there right now is gimmicky, showing off the bells and whistles. If you test out a VR experience now, it's likely meant to wow you more than convey much serious information. The companies and organizations making content still need to convince you — and in some cases, themselves — to try another, and another. But that's what happens when any new technology comes of age.

Read the rest of this story at Narratively.

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