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Virtual reality works for games. But what about real life?

It might make you more empathetic — or a better football quarterback.

Recode's Mark Bergen and The Verge's Lauren Goode wearing HTC Vive virtual reality headsets at the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab Tyler Pina for Recode

Earlier this week, Recode’s Mark Bergen became a football quarterback and The Verge’s Lauren Goode flew through a building.

These things didn’t really happen, but they sure felt real — and that was the point. Mark and Lauren were visiting Stanford University to better understand virtual reality. You can see what they saw on our Facebook page; they also played hockey, swam a coral reef sans scuba gear and walked a plank over a perilous pit.

On the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, Mark and Lauren spoke with Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, about why VR feels different from watching a movie or playing a video game.

Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab Tyler Pina for Recode

"More so than any other game technology we have now, the brain treats a virtual reality experience more like an actual experience," Bailenson said. "So what I always urge game designers to consider is, when you’re putting players through these experiences, consider that they are actual experiences, not media experiences."

In the lab, Bailenson and his team have studied how putting people through VR experiences affects their empathy, sensitivity to pain and decision-making ability. They have found that the act of pretending to do something with the aid of a virtual reality headset — and, often, sensors that track one’s hands and feet — is a powerful way to educate and even create realistic memories.

"The way one would predict the brain to respond with an actual event, we’ve demonstrated when someone experiences a VR event and later on recalls [it]," Bailenson said.

On the new podcast, he acknowledged that this means VR could have a dark side. Although the Stanford lab only works on positive "self-transformational" experiences, one could also design virtual reality software that transforms a person in negative ways.

Thank you to everyone who sent in their questions about virtual reality. You can tweet your questions, comments and complaints about any tech topic to @Recode with the hashtag #TooEmbarrassed. And be sure to follow @LaurenGoode, @KaraSwisher and @Recode to get alerted when we're looking for questions about a specific topic.

If you like this show, you should also check out our other podcasts:

  • Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with the movers and shakers in tech and media every Monday. You can subscribe on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
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If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on iTunes — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara and Lauren. Tune in next Friday for another episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask!

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