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A real feel for virtual reality

Computer graphics have come a long way since the painfully pixelated days of Pac-Man, yet few people would think  virtual characters or objects are real. Place someone in a virtual reality environment, however, and they will almost certainly interact with their digital surroundings as if they were physically there. In trying to understand presence – […]

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Computer graphics have come a long way since the painfully pixelated days of Pac-Man, yet few people would think  virtual characters or objects are real. Place someone in a virtual reality environment, however, and they will almost certainly interact with their digital surroundings as if they were physically there.

In trying to understand presence – defined, in this case, as the propensity of humans to respond to fake stimuli as if they are real –  researchers are not just gaining insights into how the human brain functions. They are also learning how to create more intense and realistic virtual experiences, opening the door to myriad applications for healthcare, training, social research and entertainment.

“Virtual environments could be used by psychiatrists to help people overcome anxiety disorders and phobias… by researchers to study social behaviour not practically or ethically reproduced in the real world, or to create more immersive virtual reality for entertainment,” explains Mel Slater, a computer scientist who has conducted extensive research on presence.

Working at the Catalan Institute for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) in Barcelona and University College, London, Slater and his team have been conducting a variety of experiments to understand why humans interpret and respond to virtual stimuli the way they do and how those experiences can be intensified.

Panic on the dance floor

For one experiment they developed a virtual bar, which test subjects enter by donning a virtual reality (VR) headset or immersing themselves in a VR CAVE in which stereo images are projected onto the walls. As the virtual patrons socialise, drink and dance, a fire breaks out. Sometimes the virtual characters ignore it, sometimes they flee in panic. That in turn dictates how the real test subjects, immersed in the virtual environment, respond.

“We have had people literally run out of the VR room, even though they know that what they are witnessing is not real,” says Slater, whose work was part funded by the EU in the Presenccia project. “They take their cues from the other characters.”

In another instance, the researchers re-enacted controversial experiments conducted by American social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s that showed people’s propensity to follow orders even if they know what they are doing is wrong. Instead of using a real actor, as Milgram did, the Presenccia team used a virtual character to which the test subject was instructed to give progressively more intense electric shocks whenever it answered questions incorrectly. The howls of pain and protest from the character, a virtual woman, increased as the experiment went on.

“Some of the test subjects felt so uncomfortable that they actually stopped participating and left the VR environment. Around half said they wanted to leave, but said they did not because they kept telling themselves it wasn’t real,” Slater says.

All had physical reactions, measured by their skin conductivity, perspiration and heart rate, showing that, at a subconscious level, people’s responses are similar regardless of whether what they are experiencing is real or virtual. The plausibility of the events enhances the sense that what is happening is real. Plausibility, Slater says, is therefore more important to presence than the quality of the graphics in a VR environment.

For example, when a test subject was made to stand on the edge of a virtual pit, staring down at what looked like an 18-metre drop, their level of anxiety increased if they could see dynamically changing shadows and reflections of their virtual body even if the graphics quality was poor. In other experiments, the researchers made people believe that a virtual hand was their own – replicating in VR the so-called “rubber hand illusion” – or that they were looking at themselves from another angle, creating a kind of out-of-body experience.

In one undoubtedly fun trial, they even gave a male test subject a woman’s body.

Games, phobias and pick-up lines

Besides offering the potential for more immersive computer games, the researchers expect their work to lead to applications that could revolutionise certain psychiatric treatments. Patients with a fear of spiders or heights, for example, could be exposed to and helped to overcome their fears in virtual reality. Similarly, people who are shy or paranoid about speaking in public could be helped by having to face virtual people and crowds.

“One application we are working on is designed to help shy men overcome their fear of meeting women by making them interact with a virtual woman,” Slater says.

Geeks and generally socially inept males are therefore likely to be the biggest winners. Not only will presence-inducing VR applications help them pick up women in bars, but they’ll also get to practice on themselves beforehand.

Based on an article first published by ICT Results.





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Published: Jan 11 2010
Category: Business
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=188
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