A virtual reality ’empathy machine’ to stop domestic abusers from reoffending to begin trials, report says

A stock image of a man using a virtual reality headset
A stock image shows a man using a virtual reality headset. Getty Images
  • France will trial “empathy machines,” which use virtual reality technology, from October, per rfi.
  • 30 male volunteers – all convicted of domestic violence – will take part in the experiment.
  • The experiment is part of an effort to stop domestic abusers from re-offending, rfi reported.
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France is trialing a virtual reality “empathy machine” as part of an effort to deter men convicted of domestic violence from reoffending, according to Radio France Internationale (rfi).

The machine, unveiled by French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti on Friday, uses “total immersion” technology to try and help offenders see situations from their victims’ perspective, rfi reported.

The all-male volunteers are reportedly immersed in a “seemingly innocuous interior” by wearing a virtual reality headset designed by French start-up Reverto, according to the French media outlet La Voix du Nord.

They are then shown 12 minutes of 360-degree video, chronicling a series of scenarios that detail an abusive family dynamic from the victims’ perspective, the media outlet reported.

“It’s a kind of empathy machine,” said Guillaume Clere, co-founder of Reverto, during an interview with rfi. “It makes men understand fear,” he added.

According to a 2021 study in the Technology, Mind, and Behavior Journal, virtual reality machines like Reverto’s have the ability to arouse compassionate feelings. The jury is still out on whether they can increase cognitive empathy, or the ability for users to put themselves in the shoes of somebody else, the study said.

The machine will be trialed with 30 volunteers and the experiment will begin in October, according to the French justice ministry.

It will take place for a year in prisons and the trial is prioritizing convicts who are “most likely to re-offend,” a justice ministry official told rfi.

In recent years, France has tried to staunch its high rates of gender-based violence. In 2019, 146 women were killed by an intimate partner, making it one of the more dangerous countries for women in Europe.

Last summer, France’s parliament implemented a bill to protect victims of domestic violence by allowing doctors to break patient confidentiality if they believe life is in immediate danger.