From Virtual Empathy to Real Compassion

You wake up on a bus, surrounded by all your remaining possessions. A few fellow passengers slump on pale blue seats around you, their heads resting against the windows. You turn and see a father holding his son. Almost everyone is asleep.

But one man, with a salt-and-pepper beard and khaki vest, stands near the back of the bus, staring at you. You feel uneasy and glance at the driver, wondering if he would help you if you needed it. When you turn back around, the bearded man has moved toward you and is now just a few feet away. You jolt, fearing for your safety, but then remind yourself there’s nothing to worry about. You take off the Oculus helmet and find yourself back in the real world, in Jeremy Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

For more and more people in Silicon Valley, a long and dangerous bus ride isn’t a simulation; it’s reality. Santa Clara County—home to Facebook and Google—contains the nation’s second highest concentration of affluence. The soaring cost of living here has displaced all but the wealthiest. In Palo Alto, the nation’s tech epicenter, the number of homeless people has increased by a staggering 26 percent in the past two years, with higher concentrations of children and families among them. They turn to shelters, campers, and, in harder times, bus line 22.

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