Virtual Reality as an Empathy Machine: Seeing the World through the Eyes of Another
Imagine if a police officer could step into the shoes of an African-American citizen, and experience first-hand what it is like to be African-American and policed in America. Dr. Derek Ham (North Carolina State University) has created a breathtakingly beautiful virtual reality experience that is a true time machine and allows us to travel back in time to live one of the pivotal moments of the Civil Rights Movement: “I AM A MAN” puts us in the shoes of a Memphis Sanitation Worker the strike in 1968 and allows us to experience the last moments of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life before he was assassinated: we become a sanitation worker, we pick up trash, go on strike holding the historic “I AM A MAN” sign.
What would happen if police officers across the country could have access to this type of transformative experience to better understand in first-person perspective the intergenerational memory of African-American community members who have inherited from a past of struggles, strikes and fights for equality? When Dr. Derek Ham was asked what he wanted officers to know and understand from his VR experience, he answered: ” I want them to know that what happened to my ancestors, great-grandfathers and mothers happened to me too.” For the police officers that face protests today, this VR experience can give them historic perspective, and allow them to understand that the protests did not start today, nor in Ferguson, but decades ago.
Officers and Citizens Trade Places in Virtual Reality
We are offering a program to police departments to build community trust and police legitimacy, where police officers and community members have the opportunity to switch perspectives through virtual reality. The 2-hour workshop gives officers and citizens a chance to experience what it is like to be on the other side. Peer-reviewed science has demonstrated that virtual reality can be used to bridge empathy gaps, reduce bias and facilitate peacemaking. We are passionate about bringing this transformative technology to US police departments and their communities.
A Vision for the Future of Community Policing
This workshop is a first step to test the potential of a community policing approach that is:
- Science-backed. Our workshop is based on peer-reviewed scientific articles in computer science and social neuroscience.
- Scalable. The cost of hardware and software is decreasing every year, which makes it easier to access to the technology and leverage it for community policing.
- Experiential. The primary step of the workshop is to experience what the other is experiencing, before exchanging insights and impressions.
- Reciprocal. In order to build lasting trust and positive relationships between police and community, both parties are involved in the switching of perspectives, and get the chance to trade places.
- Gage police and community interest in a VR-driven approach.This workshop is designed as a first introduction to the technology to help officers and community members familiarize themselves with the technology, both hardware and software.
- Pilot-test VR’s potential to make a positive contribution to the field of community policing. Virtual reality is an emerging technology and its potential applications to the field of training, law enforcement and criminal justice are promising. This workshop allows to test software and build our growing database on VR, empathy and policing.
- Crowdsource custom VR scenarios from workshop participants that we will develop in a later phase of the project. Because our primary goal is to create custom VR experiences for officers and their communities, this workshop allows us to gather feedback from workshop participants as to the stories and particular scenes they would like us to develop and recreate in VR. Democratic policing is the goal, and we would like to contribute to that goal in the most democratic way possible: by consulting the primary stakeholders and giving them a voice.
Duration: 2 hours
Number of participants: 30. 15 police officers and 15 community members
Chief Advisor on community-policing relationships: Chief Rodney Monroe (Ret.), nationally-recognized expert on police reform
Chief Technology advisor: Dr. Derek Ham, Associate professor in computer design. NCSU.
- Walking a mile in the shoes of another. Police officers get to try out “I AM A MAN” and community members experience “DISPATCH” which puts them in the shoes of a 911 dispatcher experiencing the hardships of a particularly challenging night on duty.
- Constructive conversation. The workshop participants then engage in a 20-minute constructive dialogue. Here are some of the questions that can structure the conversation: “How has that experience of the other side transformed your perspective?”, “Does it correspond to what you imagined, or not at all? If not, how so?”
- Co-creation of scenarios. Participants are invited to break into smaller groups to brainstorm on scenarios that they would like us to develop in the near future to help the other side better understand their perspective. Community members are asked the following question: “As an African-American citizen, what experiences do police officers need to go through to better understand what it is like to be African-American and policed in America?” Officers work on a symmetrical question: “As a police officer, what experiences do community members need to go through to better understand what it is like to protect and serve in America?”