The Voight-Kampff Machine…

In the dystopian science fiction movie Blade Runner a Voight-Kampff machine (VKM) was used to test and distinguish between humans and replicants based on the emphatic response to test questions. This fictional machine measures empathy based on biometrical reactions (e.g. eye movement, heart rate, blush response) to emotional questions. The underlying assumption is of course that the ability for empathy is an important human trait. Empathy as an essential concept can be frequently found in different disciplines such as history, philosophy or business management to name just a few and has in recent years has seen an increased and renewed wider interest also due to Barack Obama publicly discussing an empathy deficit as an important societal challenge that needs to be addressed.


Deckard in front of the Voight-Kampff machine from the film Blade Runner

From a research perspective revisiting empathy at this point in time is very interesting and exciting. The Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy (CEDE) project is the result of an EPSRC Sandpit on Digital Personhood which acknowledges that Digital Empathy is an important but under-explored concept. While there is a large body on research that led to many different (and often incompatible) definitions and ways to measure empathy by using self-reporting questionnaires and  physiological measures – there is a lack of research that integrates social sciences and social cognitive neuroscience perspectives (Gerdes, Segal and Lietz, 2010). The team of CEDE is placed to integrate multiple perspectives into its research and to explore the concept of digital empathy through design fiction and novel technology probes. Building an actual Voight-Kampff machine is an interesting way to conceptualise and start this research. The Voight-Kampff machine has captured people’s imagination for a long time and has been visualised by designers and artists numerous times.

Artists Rendering of the Voight-Kampff  - Benares78

Artists Rendering of the Voight-Kampff – Benares78 on

An elaborate  physical model has also been built and an XBox version of the Voight-Kampff test exists as well as an app for iOS devices. With the opportunities that 3D printing provides and biometrical sensors for physical computing platforms such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi are becoming increasingly affordable it is very tempting for us to build a working physical version of the VKM. The design of VKM provides fantastic learning opportunities in terms of exploring different physiological measures as indicators for empathy, approaches to empirical evaluation and generally by “having an object to think with” for the entire multi-disciplinary CEDE team. There will also be an exhibition at some point of the artefacts that we create during CEDE and a working VKM would be a nice centerpiece for this exhibition.

Biometrical sensors for physical computing platforms

Biometrical sensors for physical computing platforms (from e-Health Sensor Platform V2.0)

However, measuring indicators for empathy or detecting the need for empathy is only a starting point and one aspect we are investigating in the CEDE project. Eventually in CEDE we wish to explore and develop means for people to connect and communicate empathy via the network which poses more complex challenges. We are looking forward to tackling those challenges but first things first. Hence we like to close with a quote from Blade Runner.

“Tyrell: Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris… Deckard: We call it Voight-Kampff for short.”


Gerdes, K. E., Segal, E. A. and Lietz, C. 2010. Conceptualising and measuring empathy: The need for clarity and consistency. British Journal of Social Work, 40: 2326–2343.



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