stanford virtual human interaction lab

Stanford uses their virtual reality lab to study the consequences of avatar embodiment. A ten minute presentation by the lab’s director, Jeremy Bailenson, reveals some enthralling findings showing that how we see ourselves in virtual reality can measurably impact our actions in real life.

Overview of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL)

vhil hmdThe VHIL lab is what you might call a premium virtual reality setup — far outside of the budget of most individuals. In addition to a CAVE, they’ve got a ‘multisensory’ room which features 22 point surround sound. There’s even special floor-shaking speakers embedded in the floor which could be used to simulate the rumble of a falling virtual object, among other things.

The head mounted display (VR headset) they are using in the multisensory room appears to be the ~$36,000 nVisor SX111. The unit has a 1280×720 display and a 102 degree horizontal field of view. Optical tracking looks to be used for positional tracking.

The Consequences of Avatar Embodiment

When I stepped into the Holodeck, one of the most exciting things was avatar embodiment — having my entire body represented within the virtual reality game world.

While my avatar was indeed quite blocky, it still felt like me. After all, when I moved my arms in real life, my avatar moved its arms in the virtual world. And when I walked around in the real world, my avatar moved the very same way. For each real-world action, my avatar responded convincingly in the virtual space.

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Project Holodeck’s director, Nathan Burba, accompanied me during my time in the Holodeck. As he spoke to me within the virtual world, I looked in the direction of his avatar just like I would have looked at him in real life; despite his avatar having a square head and no eyes, it still felt natural because I was so immersed.

While I thought a lot about my experience after the demo, I had no idea that the virtual world could leak out and affect my real-life actions.

That’s what the director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson, says he’s demonstrated through numerous experiments. I recently came across this enthralling presentation and was very surprised at the myriad of findings:

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  • Gerald Terveen

    That is a very interesting question – just look at children wearing a firefighter or batman costume. What will happen once they feel like actually becoming batman?
    If we spend too much time in VR, we might at some point do crazy stuff like jumping out of a window because we are used to it doing no harm.

    And will it do something to our biology? If we spend a lot of time in winter VR environment, will our body request more calories?

    This is a very interesting field – can’t wait to add to the findings. ;)

    • Ben Lang

      Interesting points. I’m wondering when the first people will decide to live exclusively in VR. I imagine there will be businesses set up where you can pay a monthly fee and they’ll immerse you in a VR world 24/7.

      • Gerald Terveen

        I doubt that we will see that in our live times, but I’ll be honest – I would consider it once we hit the “matrix” level of reality.

        But once we hit that level – the problems mentioned would certainly become real! If your muscle memory would actually work in VR worlds the results might be crazy ;)

  • John Dewar

    These findings definitely relate to the discussion last week on this site over whether VR increases the risk from violent video games.

    He is showing both positive and negative effects, although it doesn’t appear that he is very interested in the violent games question. I think there is a definite effort underway here to show that you can achieve prosocial effects from VR, and he says something to the effect that “violent video games’ affects have been studied already”, but the studies he cites by Anderson CA et al concluded there was a significant antisocial effect due to exposure to violent video games (and they didn’t address VR).

    I read a few of the papers the Bailenson lab published and they seemed to be well-controlled studies. But the usual caveats apply: there weren’t a huge number of participants and they are all college students (most studies have that problem). So the results are interesting but – as usual – further study is needed along these lines if we actually care to know whether VR will affect society in the real world.