Empathy & Embodiment in VR
Where do presence, flow, empathy, and embodiment merge?
While I was looking for the relationships between user experience (UX) and the quality of the actual VR content to enhance the whole immersive feel, I bumped into interesting and relatively recent research written by Shin on Computers in Human Behaviour about Empathy & Embodiment in VR.
The author hypothesised that users of VR could embody experiences by viewing, game playing, and feeling perceptual cues linked to those experiences. Becoming absorbed by VR can stimulate empathy.
Stimulated empathy in VR can increase a user’s overall empathy and the perception that a virtual environment is realistic.
Empathy, for my background as a psychologist, is a different and way deeper construct. However, I do acknowledge that a good VR content properly designed in its narrative and flow creates a level of “arousal” that can elicit, along with the embodiment, an active engagement within the VR world.
What I find very interesting in this article is the “mediating” role of the flow. In a VR context, flow works independently of technological quality, being influenced by the users’ own will, mood, and disposition. In the study, the flow has been proved to be a mediator between presence and empathy.
The significant mediating role played by flow implies that VR users want to confirm performance before deciding to adopt. In the VR storytelling context, high presence does not lead to empathy; instead, it is mediated by the flow.
Flow mediates the connection between presence and empathy. The experience of being immersed in a VR story fosters a mental state of operation in which the user is highly involved in viewing.
The two-tiered process of immersion comprises presence and flow, which are experienced by users in the first place (UX) and then empathy and embodiment, which are selectively experienced by users (quality of experience). Flow may link the two processes; the consequence of the two-tiered process is engagement.
Immersion exists in a dormant state and becomes concrete when users experience it. Thus, instead of seeking immersion from technology, it should be found within users’ in-situ contexts: their cognition, interaction, and experience.
Immersion is a user-dependent factor defined by and for users.
Similarly as in my article “Blah blah and Virtual Realities”, the author concludes “…no matter how functional and advanced the technology, the key is to focus on the story, not the technology itself or any special 3D effects. The real challenge is not so much that things can look too real or not real enough; instead, it involves the feel of the piece, as perceived by the users of VR stories.”
Presence and flow can be tailored to reflect and respond to user traits (i.e. creating additional content for those users less likely to enter in an immersive state).
“Empathy” and embodiment can be aligned with the intended level of presence and flow.
In this way, technological features and cognitive processes can be harmonised.