"Empathy is wholly insufficient"

How AR/VR technologies can boost economic growth & reduce violence within communities


In November 2017, I attended Future of Reality, NYC Media Lab's annual VR/AR innovation event. There were industry panels, startup demos, and hands-on workshops. By far my favorite session was the Future of Cities panel, which shared ways in which Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies could be applied to actually improve the economic and bodily well-being of a community.

The panel featured featured representatives from the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Columbia University School of Social Work, NYU Future Reality Lab, and NYCx. I was particularly drawn to the work and commentary shared by John Bryant and Jasmine Bowie from the Justice Center.

From what I gathered, the Justice Center serves Brownsville, a 2-square mile space in Brooklyn. The lives of Brownsville residents are severely impacted by the presence of highly territorial gangs, to the point that even traversing across certain adjacent neighborhood blocks is near impossible. In the pursuit of safety and violence reduction, the Center has developed several VR and AR enabled solutions:

  1. Fireflies. This VR game pairs up residents living across gang lines and housing projects and enables them to learn about one another’s life narratives. Fireflies uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data to replicate the neighborhood and uses 3D scans of some 300 actual residents to put faces to names as their stories are told. By allowing residents to virtually cross gang lines and by facilitating relationships that were previously impossible, Fireflies hopes to improve understanding and reduce violence.

  2. Virtual Storefronts. Many of Brownsville’s artists and small business owners cannot afford rent for a physical storefront. This AR app bypasses the problem by enabling them to set up virtual stores at real physical sites. Prospective buyers simply walk up to a predetermined location (e.g., an abandoned or unleased venue). Using their mobile app, they can then browse for products by the owner of that store. The app acts as a market place for buyers and sellers, offers step-by-step business guidance, and even enables buyers and sellers to meet face-to-face.

As one panelist remarked, “Empathy is wholly insufficient.” Yet, empathy can be a starting point for tangible impact. It is incredible to glimpse how the Brownsville Community Justice Center has used immersive technologies to build empathy and improve economic well being for the local community. I would love to see how these technologies can be replicated and scaled in other geographies.