Lab explores how VR changes the way we think

Whatever the near-term market for consumer virtual reality systems, VR as a technology seems to have great potential for changing the way we think and act.

Researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab are exploring how VR can have real-world effects on users, because of how engrossing it is. They’re looking at how it can be used to help those with physical disabilities learn how to compensate or overcome them. And it’s being used to help people understand what racism or sexism feels like.

“I believe that VR experiences change the way you think of yourself and others and change your behavior,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford professor who is the founding director of the VR lab there. “When VR is done well, it’s a proxy for natural experience.”

With virtual reality systems from four prominent tech companies slated to hit store shelves over the next year, the questions of how they will be used, who they will appeal to and how they will affect their users are growing topics of interest. Founded in 2003, the lab has been ahead of the curve in exploring such issues.

The lab’s work is ongoing, but so far, researchers have recorded some significant short-term effects on users who experience particular VR scenarios.

One such effect is instilling empathy. The lab has a scenario where users can fly around a virtual city by simply extending their arms in the direction in which they want to go. In some versions of the scenario, users are instructed to save someone who is in trouble. The lab found that users who experienced that simulation were more likely to help clean up a spill in the real world when a researcher seemed to accidentally knocked over a drink right after the users were done with their VR experience.

Another effect has to do with encouraging users to translate their concern for the environment into real-world actions. Users were shown a scenario in which they could see an image of themselves in a mirror in a virtual bathroom. As they ran the hot water in their sink, their virtual doppelganger would eat lumps of coal. The longer they ran the hot water, the more coal their virtual selves would.

The lab found that users who experienced that scenario were likely to use less hot water in the days after their experience. The lab measured a similar effect on users who experienced a scenario designed to get them to use less paper.

Right now, it’s unclear exactly how long the effects of VR will last. Until recently, VR systems have been expensive and hard to find, so there simply hasn’t been the opportunity for researchers to do much in the way of studying their long-term effects. But the early indications are that the VR experience has a greater long-term effect that watching a regular video, said Bailenson.

The new, low-cost systems like Facebook’s Oculus are making it easier to study the effects of VR, both short- and long-term. And the lab was recently awarded a pair of research grants that will be used in part to study long-term effects.

“We’ll have a better answer to that question in the next year or two,” he said.

One concern is that should the short- and long-term effects of VR prove to be stronger that it will be used in ways that aren’t necessarily socially benign or altruistic. It almost certainly will be used by advertisers or for other propaganda purposes. It could even potentially be used to desensitize people to doing horrible things, like killing other people.

“I can’t look you in the eye and claim that it will be only used for the good stuff,” said Bailenson.

Photo: Troy Wolverton explores the ocean floor virtually at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group.)


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