In our current socially-distanced reality, technology (the double-edged sword of connection) is coming in handy. We might be isolated from our families and friends, but Zoom, House Party, Face Time, and online games are helping us stay in constant communication. Yet, can technology help us overcome divisions in humanity? Our collective tendency to hate, isolate, and blame? Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar, artist and the founder of Pathos Labs, believes so. Discover the impact of empathy technology in Romain’s talk on how virtual reality can help us overcome our fear of those we do not know.

Coming Together Along Lines of Difference

We are living in an environment of intense stress and division. States are brutally bidding against each other for life-saving ventilators and PPE. Asian-American harassment in the U.S. has spiked after President Trump’s adoption of the term “the Chinese virus” for COVID-19. Yet, this is also a time of people coming together. Cities unite at 7 p.m. to cheer in support of health care workers on the front lines. Across the globe, people are socially distancing through song and exercise on their balconies

COVID-19 is bringing to light what we already know. People will come together in times of strife, but others will remain divided. Across the world, physical and psychological barriers make it difficult for us to empathize with those that are different from us. These barriers also make it difficult to change our minds or alter our perspectives.

“In the grips of fear, anger, and hatred, coming together along lines of difference is rarely the option to which we’re drawn, and we choose to remain isolated from those different from us.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

In the U.S., we are politically, racially, and religiously isolated. Romain points out that 75 percent of white Americans do not have a non-white friend and only 25 percent of Americans have met a Muslim person. This makes it difficult to empathize when COVID-19 disproportionately impacts communities of color or when working-class Americans are feeling the brunt of economic impact from the virus. Romain knows our intolerance for others and our inability to empathize can become our demise. 

Intergroup Contact Theory

One effective tool in empathy building, Romain explains, is the Intergroup Contact Theory. This theory holds that experiencing one moment of intimate contact with someone you fear can drastically reduce your prejudice.

Shortly following the 2016 election and the Muslim Ban announcement, Romain, the son of an Iranian immigrant, wanted to test this theory out for himself. So, he packed his things and drove to the most conservative state in the country at the time, Oklahoma.

Fearful of the hate he would experience upon arrival, Romain was surprised by the “generosity, kindness, hospitality, [and] friendship” he received instead. He discovered the human behind the conservative voter, and Oklahomans met a “manifestation of Iranian, liberal, millennial, cosmopolitan, that deviated from the narratives that they believed.”

“Hatred will always get the attention, but it’s far from the full encompassing reality. It was only because we came together across lines of difference that we had the chance to look past the oversimplified narratives and see each other as human.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

Empathy Technology 

Romain’s experience in Oklahoma solidified his passion for building empathy between groups of difference. However, there was a clear barrier to making this possible for many people. Everyone cannot (and will not) hop into a car and travel to a place of difference. Most people stay put in their communities for the majority of their lives. That’s where technology comes in.

“I am a technologist, and while I see so many ways that technology is furthering isolation, I also find incredible hope in what technology is capable of doing in accelerating the speed and ease of coming together along lines of difference.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

So, Romain started a non-profit laboratory, Pathos Labs, focused on bringing people together. Using a special camera system, they recorded hundreds of stories from people spanning unique religious, cultural, and racial backgrounds. There was a gender non-conforming writer, a former meth addict, a Syrian refugee, a single teen mother, and more.

Using virtual reality, the lab transformed these videos into a realistic eye-gazing experience, where someone puts a VR headset on and feels like they are sitting in front of the person telling their story. 

“Research says that if you are placed in front of someone you may “otherize”, disagree with, or even hate—if you are met with kindness, happiness, vulnerability, you will start to feel the same way in return.” – Romain Sepehr Vakilitabar

In order to make this accessible to isolated communities, Pathos Labs embarked on a six-month road trip. Along the way, they shared this empathy technology with people who would otherwise never have the chance to connect with others so intimately. 

Using Empathy Technology Today

Technology has helped divide humanity, but it can also help connect us. Perhaps during this time of isolation, more people can engage with empathy technology to help us overcome division.

If you would like to engage in empathy technology right now, watch these two virtual reality Pathos Labs videos. These videos do not require a VR headset and can be watched from any device with access to YouTube.

Strangers: The Forgotten Women in America

Using VR technology, this short film tells the stories of three American mothers who all feel invisible in the U.S., including a rural farmer, an activist, and a refugee. As each mother speaks, the viewer can move around the video, simulating an in-person experience. The viewer can explore the homes and neighborhoods of these three women as they ponder the ways these strangers share similarities. 

My Beautiful Home

Aimed to discredit stereotypes about Kibera, a Kenyan village known as Africa’s largest slum, this VR video allows the viewer to see Kibera through the eyes of a 25-year-old woman. You can move the image around to see Kibera more clearly and genuinely, as Kibera residents reclaim their story, dignity, and self-worth.