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What If Virtual Reality Can Make Us Better Citizens?

Researchers are studying how the technology can help us build empathy and change our personal behavior.
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Stefanie Loos/Reuters

Last weekend, at a museum exhibition, I strapped on a virtual reality headset that blotted out the world around me. I couldn’t hear shoes scuffing cobblestones outside the window. All I could see was a long, wooden boat slicing through rippling water, below houses propped up on stilts. My body had melted away—I kept looking for my hands, and couldn’t find them. But I thought I could feel the breeze rustling my hair, and water droplets polka-dotting my arms. When I peeled off the mask, blinking into the afternoon light, the streets didn’t feel any more or less real than the boat and the ocean.

That’s a hallmark of the technology—it’s capable of giving users simulated experiences that generate real emotional reactions. Several researchers are now trying to harness that power to nudge human behavior for the better.