Have you ever struggled to make ends meet and pay your rent? Have you ever spent the night sleeping in your car? How would it feel to have to sleep on a night bus: struggling to keep your eyes open while you look out for your belongings and try to keep harassers away from you and your stuff?
Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s “Becoming Homeless” piece allows you to experience all this in virtual reality. Taking the perspective of a vulnerable citizen like a homeless person is cognitively and emotionally taxing when you are relying on the sole power of your imagination. Immersive computer-generated virtual reality demos like Becoming Homeless help you live in first-person perspective these experiences and better understand the people that go through them.
“Becoming Homeless” is designed to counter the Fundamental Attribution Error, as coined by Stanford Psychologists, which describes how individuals have the tendency to blame others when bad things happen to them, but blame external factors when bad things happen to themselves. This social psychology construct explains why there is a commonly spread misconception that losing one’s home is due to who you are and the choices you make. Based on testimonies from homeless people in the Bay Area, “Becoming Homeless” blurs the line between us and them and allows users to see what the world looks like “at the bottom of the ladder” in the most vulnerable socio-economic position.
Together with the National Police Foundation, we are building, curating and testing the first virtual reality curriculum designed to help law enforcement officers trade places with the citizens they protect and serve. Problematic encounters between law enforcement and the homeless are unfortunately not rare. In partnership with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, we have started testing “Becoming Homeless” in California police departments in May 2018. This immersive experience allows officers to spend days in the life of someone who can no longer afford a home. They can interact with their environment to attempt to save their home and to protect themselves and their belongings as they face in virtual reality the adversity of living with diminishing resources.
To assess the virtual reality experience’s capacity to elicit empathy, we have adopted a scientific evaluation framework which involves pre-post testing, a randomized controlled trial and behavioral metrics to measure behavioral change beyond the less reliable empathy self-report measures.