Use Virtual Reality for a Change

In this blog, I will write about using VR for a change in two different ways:

Use Virtual Reality for a change.

Use Virtual Reality, for a change.

Virtual Reality is going to change how we view films, how we explore our environment and how we train medical practitioners, all of which is destined to improve the quality of our lives. How VR is set to change the world is something that, incredibly, was recognised in an ABC News Report from as far back as 1991.

There are several things to note about this. First, it is familiar – it reflects very much what is being said today, that virtual reality is going to “change the world”, that it is a new technology with a huge promise, and, that there is massive excitement about it. Second, people think that VR back in 1991 was really bad. Truth is it wasn’t and still isn’t. It was though really very expensive and highly inaccessible to the mass of people. It was confined to a few well-off research labs around the world, and also only had a place in industry.

For example, in 1991, around the time that I started research in this area, in the UK there were very few Universities that had any VR capability, and similarly around the world. You needed funding of hundreds of thousands of pounds/dollars in order to carry out research in this area. The head-mounted display was very expensive, but more than that, you needed a very powerful computer to be able to drive the graphics in real-time. This is because VR is a multi-processing system, taking care of graphics, sound, haptic responses, real-time tracking, and interaction. You could not just run it on the equivalent of a ‘PC’.

VR has today returned to the mainstream

Why? What distinguishes it from other forms of media? I believe that it affords three special illusions that I call ‘Place Illusion’ (PI), the ‘Plausibility Illusion’ (Psi) and the ‘Body ownership illusion’.

  • Place Illusion (PI) is the feeling of being in the environment depicted by the virtual reality displays (“I am there”).
  • Plausibility (Psi) is the illusion that the events depicted are real (“This is really happening”).
  • Body ownership is the illusion that the virtual body that substitutes your own is your body.

PI and Psi are usually lumped together as ‘presence’, but actually they are quite different and are determined by different factors in a VR setup.

These three illusions: “I am here”, “This situation is really happening” “This is my body” are the core, and highly interrelated illusions that VR directly delivers.

There are two things to consider here:

  • First of all, these are not beliefs, they are illusions. When I am in VR and I experience these illusions, I know for sure that they are not true! But they are like any perceptual illusion – knowing that they are not real does not stop them from happening.
  • Second, these illusions have consequences – PI and Psi generally result in you behaving and responding realistically to events and situations that occur in the VR. For example, a virtual human character exhibits pain, and you are affected by that, even though you know nothing is happening. You see a deep pit in front of you and your heart races and you step back from it, even though you know 100% that nothing is ‘really’ there.

Although VR apparently ‘died’ sometime in the 1990s, a lot has happened over 25 years

There has been a massive research effort. Type “virtual reality” as an ‘exact phrase’ in Google scholar and there are more than 600,000 hits between 1990 and 2013. Even taking into account duplications, and citations, this is still a lot. Also, VR has been used in industry throughout this period to, for example, support remote collaboration in vehicle design and a 1999 review.

All this sums up the “use VR for a change.” It has been used, especially in applications such as virtual prototyping (e.g., of motor vehicles), training (the most obvious being flight simulators). What’s different now is that it can be used far more widely and far more inexpensively than was previously possible.

Today, compared to the 1990s, there is a different danger: What is VR good for? Why go through the trouble and inconvenience of setting up a system and putting on a head-mounted display, when you might be able to have similar enough experiences just by watching TV, or playing a conventional computer game? A potential problem of VR today is content that is specifically designed for this media. VR must be used as a medium in its own right, with its own conventions, allowing people to realise experiences that can only be done in VR. VR is not just a display in 3D. In VR, we are not ‘users’, we are participants in an experience. We don’t ‘use’ virtual reality any more than we ‘use’ reality. We don’t use it we are ‘in’ it, we ‘are’ it, our actions and interactions form the very reality that is virtual reality.

Application of VR in clinical psychology provides an example of the problem of content – using virtual reality to help people with fear of heights. While it is logistically and economically easier to use a virtual height rather than a real height, a real height could still be used. In other words, VR is only being used to simulate reality, it is not being used as a highly unique and novel medium in its own right. Similarly, for fear of public speaking VR applications put people in front of a virtual audience.

Again, this could be done in reality – VR is only being used as a simulator of something that can be physically experienced. Of course, such applications are great, and important, but they are not enough to establish VR as a method to deliver new experiences that can result in powerful change and which are impossible in reality. Next, consider some examples.

Experience a world of new and exciting possibilities

If you were a super hero, apart from enjoyment of the sheer experience of flying, how would this change your behaviour towards helping others? The group of Dr Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford described an experiment where people who experienced flying around (in VR) like asuperhero became more prosocial (helping of others) in a later action compared with others who flew around in a simulated vehicle.

In our own group, we showed how we could make the act of talking to oneself like talking to another person, where you could to apparently have a conversation with someone famous like Dr Sigmund Freud, and both be yourself and be Freud responding to yourself.

Also, can the implicit bias of people towards other racial groups be diminished by experiencing having ownership over a virtual body that looks like a member of that racial group? The answer appears to be yes, with several scientific studies all coming up with the same results. You can even experience an out-of-body experience through VR, and this seems to diminish death anxiety.

My overall conclusion is that with respect to system developments, hardware, software, platforms, VR is moving forward at a great pace. However, for it to be taken up in the mass market it has to be more than just transporting computer games from the flat screen to VR and more than just passive observations of events, however fascinating and remarkable.

VR must develop its own paradigms, its own ways of allowing us to experience situations and events that we can never realise in physical reality, and which can result in profound changes where these are changes along the lines of “that was an amazing experience that really makes me feel good”, “more profound than the best movie I have ever seen”, “an amazing experience and I learned a lot from it that I otherwise could have never known”. “I learned about this historical event not simply by observing it, but by being part of it”, “I somehow was the equation that I was trying to understand” and so on. This is using VR for a change.

Finally, VR is such a different medium that many of the usual methods for human-computer interaction break down. It may not be well-remembered that our modern methods for human-computer interaction largely arose out of 10 years of dedicated research at Xerox Parc in the 1970s. A mouse, menus, point-and-click interfaces, windows – all the things we take for granted in modern computer interfaces are great for 2D displays. They are almost absurd in VR.

The next blog will cover the challenges of interaction in VR. However, in the meantime think about using virtual reality for a change and you’ll soon see that it is useful for discovering new ways of solving many problems in everyday life.

Use virtual reality for a change – its power resides in being able to change and enhance ourselves through highly novel and physically impossible experiences.

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Further reading

Mel Slater is a Distinguished Investigator at the University of Barcelona and Professor of Virtual Environments part-time at UCL. He is an Immersive Fellow at Digital Catapult.

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