Where and who you are in VR has a real impact, study finds
In the field of virtual reality (VR), users can completely transform the appearance of themselves as avatars and of their digital environments, all with the mere click of a button. In a ground-breaking new study, Stanford University researchers explored how this unique and profound ability significantly affects social interactions in the metaverse – the term for immersive virtual worlds, experienced through VR headsets, where people increasingly come together to play and work.
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“In the metaverse, you can be anyone or anywhere,” says study lead author Eugy Han, a PhD student in communication advised by Jeremy Bailenson, the Thomas More Storke Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. “Our ongoing work reported in this study is to show who you are and where you are matters enormously for learning, collaboration, socialization, and other metaverse activities.”
The study, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communicationis the latest to come out of Stanford University’s innovative Virtual people course. The course, presented by Bailenson and colleagues, is one of the first and largest ever offered primarily in VR.
For the study, 272 students used VR headsets to meet in virtual environments for 30 minutes once a week over eight weeks. During those sessions, the students participated in two experiments and accumulated hundreds of thousands of minutes of interactions for researchers to analyze.
Real benefits from virtual environments
One experiment has the effect of where the students were across a range of digital environments. The other experiment has the effect of WHO the students were, by how they presented themselves as avatars.
In the experiment focused on virtual settings, students interacted in limited or spacious virtual environments, both indoor and outdoor. The researchers created 192 unique environments with these different characteristics, from tight train cars to sprawling fenced arenas and from walled gardens to endless fields.
When in wide open virtual spaces, either indoors or outdoors, the students showed greater non-verbal synchrony and reported increases in many positive measures such as group cohesion, pleasure, arousal, presence and enjoyment, compared to when the students interacted in confined environments had. . The study also showed that outdoor environments with elements of nature generated more positive feelings, independent of the apparent size of the virtual space. “Where you are in the metaverse can have a huge impact on your experience and the shared experience of a group,” Han says. “Large, open, panoramic spaces for people to move around in really helped with group behavior.”
The findings therefore suggest that people can take advantage of the available grandeur of VR by opting for large, outdoor environments instead of recreating cramped meeting rooms or lecture halls.
“The essence of collaboration is people attending and responding to each other in a productive way,” says Bailenson, “and our data shows that all these wonderful downstream things happen when you make your virtual rooms bigger compared to a traditional office space. “
Sense of self in VR
In the other experiment, students virtually interacted with each other, either as self-avatars, which resembled the students’ actual physical-world appearance, or as generic avatars that all looked and dressed alike. The researchers observed the students’ VR behavior and the students reported on their feelings on measures such as group cohesion, presence, enjoyment and realism.
The study found that when represented by avatars that looked like themselves, the students displayed more non-verbal synchrony, meaning they gestured and posed similarly to each other. Consistent with these observations, the students reported feeling more “in sync” with themselves and each other when they came together as self-avatars. When represented as generic avatars and thus “not themselves” virtually, the students reported that the experience was entertainingly liberating. “People enjoyed being in generic avatars stripped of all identity,” says Han. “On the other hand, when represented by self-avatars, the students reported feeling more active and engaged.”
Real impacts, virtual locations and avatars
An important takeaway from these results is that for more productive and collaborative interactions – for example, for workplace or professional purposes – self-avatars are the preferred option. “When you get serious in the metaverse, you want to look like you,” says Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) and also a study co-author.
Importantly, the two experiments found that the reported benefits of interaction actually increased over time as certain avatars and in certain settings. Bailenson says these findings indicate that the effects are lasting and not just isolated, positive VR experiences.
The study also demonstrates the potential for VR as a new and informative medium to conduct psychological studies, given its limitless digital possibilities and low cost compared to physical world alternatives.
“In the history of social science, there are very few studies on the psychological effect of large indoor spaces, for the obvious reason that, for example, it is very expensive to rent out Madison Square Garden to hold a four-person meeting.” Bailenson said. “But in VR, the costs go away, and one of the more compelling findings of our study is that large indoor spaces have much of the same redemptive psychological value as being outside.”
Additional Stanford co-authors of this research include graduate students Cyan DeVeaux, Hanseul Jun, and Mark Miller; Jeffrey Hancock, the Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication; and Nilam Ram, professor of communication and psychology.
Co-author Kristine Nowak, is from the University of Connecticut.
Bailenson is also a senior fellow at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, member of Stanford Bio-X, member of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, senior fellow of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and member of the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Hancock is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and a faculty affiliate of the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI).
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