University of Oulu

We are Oulu : exploring situated empathy through a communal virtual reality experience

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Author: Kiarostami, Mohammad Sina1
Organizations: 1University of Oulu, Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, Computer Science
Format: ebook
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 7.5 MB)
Pages: 79
Persistent link:
Language: English
Published: Oulu : M. Kiarostami, 2022
Publish Date: 2022-07-01
Thesis type: Master's thesis (tech)
Tutor: Hosio, Simo
Visuri, Aku
Reviewer: Hosio, Simo
Visuri, Aku


Equality among all humans, regardless of ethnicity, language, or nationality, is an essential topic in every community and society. Immigrants’ hardships as foreigners in another community are issues that not only contrast with humans’ equality but also cause irreparable damage to foreigners and society. Nowadays, Virtual Reality (VR) as an alluring technology is a promising approach to communicating people’s hardship experiences in a simulated situation to enhance others’ empathy. It has even been called the ultimate empathy machine.

In this thesis, we developed a VR experience to showcase collected hardship experiences that the international community of the University of Oulu has faced during their studies and lives in Oulu to mainly local participants to explore their situated empathy. To this end, we first collected hardship stories and data from 40 members of the international community through an online questionnaire. The results highlight that social problems, language barriers, issues with bureaucracy, and racism are key issues in the community. Then, we developed and performed a VR experiment with 18 participants to let them read the hardship stories through simulated conversations and interactions with avatars in a virtual university environment. We asked our participants to respond to pre- and post-experiment questionnaires and participate in a semi-structured interview after the experiment. Analyzing questionnaire results indicated that after the experiment the average participant’s responses to their knowledge and tendency to discuss the hardships increased by 1.05 and 1.11 on a 5-point scale, respectively. Likewise, their average responses comparing the international community’s quality of life with themselves decreased by 0.77 on the 7-point scale, showing that they rated the international community’s quality of life worse than they initially thought. The qualitative evaluation of participants’ reflections yielded positive feedback on the VR experience’s authenticity, the stories’ plausibility, their increased situated empathy and awareness regarding the hardships, and VR as a promising technology in communicating these topics.

Ultimately, the thesis contributes to collecting and understanding the hardship experiences of the international community of the University of Oulu. It demonstrates a feasible approach to enhancing empathy and awareness, and the experiment increased the participants’ understanding of the University of Oulu’s international community’s hardships. Further, the thesis continues to add evidence to how VR is a promising approach to fostering empathy.

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Copyright information: © Mohammad Sina Kiarostami, 2022. Except otherwise noted, the reuse of this document is authorised under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC-BY 4.0) licence ( This means that reuse is allowed provided appropriate credit is given and any changes are indicated. For any use or reproduction of elements that are not owned by the author(s), permission may need to be directly from the respective right holders.