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Is Empathy the future of Virtual Reality?

In the last decades, the profile of autism has been raised by a number of organisations around the world. As a result, people living autism are - becoming more integrated in society than in the past, and the stigma around autism is slowly fading. However there is still room for improvement.

In order to better respond to the needs of people with autism, It would help if we could walk in the shoes of someone who is affected by autism, and see the world with their eyes. And it is to address this need, in its small and particular representation of the school classroom, that Professor Alexiei Dingli, senior Lecturer of Artificial Intelligence at the University of Malta, lead a team who developed a virtual reality experience which allows the user to see the classroom environment from the eyes of an autistic child. As Professor Dingli explained to the Times of Malta, the idea behind the virtual reality experience is to tackle autism with empathy, helping teacher and children to understand the mimics, the feelings and the thoughts of autistic children.

The technology has been presented to Universities and technology companies in the US in the past weeks. This could be the first step to develop empathy towards marginalised groups, such as people affected by specific disorders from the birth, but also people who experienced trauma or different difficulties in their life. In order to show that this technology can be replicated, another group within the University is planning to apply this technology to multicultural learning, allowing teachers, students and school staff to see the world from the eyes of a child with a migrant background.

This positive use of technology is what pushes researchers, engineers and designer to keep doing their job. The dream of a technology that improves human life rather than destroying it is closer each day. Technology is not just creating super-humans, it is making humankind realize that we lost something along the journey, something really important: empathy.