Virtual reality is coming to life in research labs and beyond


Editor’s Note: Tracy Vu is a research assistant in Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Once restricted to science fiction movies, virtual reality is becoming more prevalent in real life. Not to be confused with augmented reality, virtual reality is a digitally-created, immersive environment that allows a participant to feel that the mediated experience reproduced by the virtual environment is “real.” There has been extensive research done using virtual reality to study human behavior and social interactions, as well as to explore the practical use of VR to improve different facets of life, such as to treat psychological disorders.

“It’s really important in the sense that technology and media is something that’s really incorporated in the world today and how we interact with people. It’s becoming more and more immersed in everyday action,” said Jakki Bailey, a Ph.D. student at Stanford University who examines the impact embodied mediated experiences have on cognition and behavior. “For example, people are interacting with virtual representations of other people. Virtual reality is an extension of that mediated experience, so it’s important to understand how it impacts.”

Virtual reality is also a unique tool for researchers because it overcomes two obstacles that have long plagued experiments. First, it allows perfect replication of experimental conditions for each participant. For example, agents, entities in virtual reality that are controlled by algorithms, can take place as confederates.

“If you have someone in immersive virtual reality, you can have them interact with a confederate that’s a digital agent, so that everyone’s getting the same exact experience with that agent — which you wouldn’t get if you had a research assistant come in and be the confederate,” said Andrea Won, a Ph.D. student at Stanford who is researching the capture and expression of nonverbal behavior and the physical and psychological effects of mediated embodiment.

Another benefit of using virtual reality is it allows researchers to create experimental environments that would otherwise be impossible or dangerous to replicate, since nearly anything can be built in the virtual world, which is oftentimes multi-sensory.

In one experiment, researchers were able to have participants watch themselves eat coal while showering to explore pro-environmental behavior. The researchers found that people used cooler water when they saw an avatar eating coal — which represented the amount of energy they consumed while showering — compared to participants who only saw a sign with text of how much coal was used during the virtual shower.

However, virtual reality is not limited to the lab.

The Oculus Rift recently made its appearance at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Virtual reality goggles that transport users into the game, the headset is expected to hit stores sometime this year. Feedback has been favorable, with many reviewers amazed at the high level of presence and interactivity of the headset. Prices haven’t yet been announced, but they’ll most likely be less than the $45,000 price tag on Stanford’s first VR head-mounted display.

On Tuesday, Facebook announced it would acquire Oculus VR for approximately $2 billion.

“We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways,” Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus VR, said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it’s only just the beginning.”

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