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Can VR make us healthier, smarter and less racist?

Stanford University’s Human Interaction Lab, led by Jeremy Bailenson, is finding out.

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A screenshot from the VR experience “1000 Cut Journey”
A screenshot from “1000 Cut Journey,” a VR experience that puts users in the body of a black man.
Jeremy Bailenson

You and three of your kindergarten classmates are sitting on the floor, playing with blocks, while the teacher helps another student with her work. All the kids on the floor start throwing blocks at one another and you join in — but when the teacher notices, you’re the only one who gets blamed.

And there’s one other difference: The other children have white skin; yours is black.

This is a scene from “1000 Cut Journey,” an upcoming virtual reality experience aimed at showing non-black people what it’s like to be African-American. It was co-developed by a team at Columbia University, led by Assistant Professor Courtney Cogburn, and one at Stanford University, led by Professor Jeremy Bailenson.

“It was important to Courtney, the idea is that these types of events happen to you every day, all throughout your life,” Bailenson said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher. “It doesn’t happen once. These microagressions happen when you’re a kid, when you’re a teenager, when you’re an adult.”

Bailenson, the author of a new book about VR called “Experience on Demand,” said his lab at Stanford has previously tested virtual reality’s ability to educate people about the environment, or to motivate them to support affordable housing in their communities.

“If you’re going to learn about the coral reefs, why not swim around in them?” he said. “If you’re going to learn about the statue of David, why look at a 2-D picture? There seems to be some low-hanging fruits where VR actually will help. I don’t think we should blindly throw it at everything, but in those rare cases where this lesson helps, [we should].”

You can listen to Recode Decode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

On the new podcast, Bailenson talked about how his lab used smell — in addition to sight and sound — in one VR experiment. One of his postdoc students wanted to find out how important smell is to how hungry we feel.

“Imagine you have a donut in hand,” Bailenson said. “You’re bringing that donut to your mouth, and there are three senses going into that: You see the donut in your hand, you feel the touch of the donut on your skin and you smell the donut as it gets close. In VR, we created an experiment where you could cross these conditions.”

He cautioned that the donut tests that have been done so far are “preliminary,” with a small number of test participants. The results were eye-opening (but not mouth-watering).

“After the study, we had a set number of donuts on the table, and we allowed people to eat however many they wanted,” Bailenson said. “After touching and smelling the donut, they wanted to eat less. So it acted as satiation.”

“The big idea behind this work: Imagine if a beautiful hamburger looked like a hamburger, smelled like a hamburger, but it was really a vegan patty,” he added. “We’ve just solved climate change. We’ve just solved the obesity epidemic. Can you [fake] the experience of tasting amazing food?”

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

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge’s Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • And Recode Replay has all the audio from our live events, including the Code Conference, Code Media and the Code Commerce Series. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.

If you like what we’re doing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts — and if you don’t, just tweet-strafe Kara.

This article originally appeared on

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