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VWN News: Virtual Human Interaction Lab uses VR to Study Human Social Behaviour
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 Virtual Human Interaction Lab uses VR to Study Human Social Behaviour

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Date posted: 21/05/2007

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University is home to Communications Professor Jeremy Bailenson and a team of researchers who are observing how humans interact within non-physical realms ? interaction within virtual reality environments.

The centre, located in the McClatchy communications building, is doing state-of-the-art research on health, racism, sexism and a variety of topics that can be tested through simulation.

All of the virtual worlds used by the centre are fed through a single $25,000 HMD. This offers levels of realism far beyond the normal commercial worn display. Enough to create very realistic and believable environments.

Whilst there are many labs worldwide that use similar equipment, the Stanford lab is fundamentally different because it focuses solely on human reactions, behaviours and decisions in virtual space.

The helmet that transports the researchers and research subjects into the virtual worlds created, is equipped with an accelerometer that captures the pitch, roll and yaw of the volunteer's head 100 times a second. Four small cameras in the dark windowless room triangulate the position of the helmet, which has a light-emitting diode perched on top.

Inside the lab, one computer records all position and orientation information from the helmet, and the person's physical position. A second computer continually redraws that world and sends the information back to the helmet.

The system avoids the problem of subjects bumping into walls by cleverly putting virtual walls in the same placs as the physical - or placing them in front.

Jesse Fox, a doctoral student in communications, manages the lab.

?What?s unique about our lab is that we are firmly rooted in the communication discipline,? she said. ?We focus on transformed social interactions, or how our interactions with other people or virtual humans have changed based on technology. We?re very much a social science lab, answering questions about human behaviour that haven?t been explored before.?

Prof. Jeremy Bailenson added of the changes since he started work on the project four years ago. ?The idea of people spending time in virtual space was still science fiction. But now, with the amount of time people are spending in Second Life and MySpace and Facebook, we?re realising that people have second virtual identities. That?s helped us get more attention.?

?We?ve always been doing very important work,? Bailenson said. ?It just takes a little while for people to find out you?re on the map. We?re finally starting to get some recognition.?

?We?re doing stuff with the automotive industry about creating virtual characters in cars to help you drive better in terms of detecting when you?re tired and trying to alert you to problems on the road,? Bailenson said.

"The concept of being in a synthetic world isn't restricted to digital technology," he said. "Neurophysiologically, we're wired for it because people are convinced of being present in their dreams all the time. ... The human race seems amenable to being someplace else virtually."

The lab is also working on virtual demos to treat people for phobias, including a fear of heights, and other specific situations, said Grace Joo Ahn, a doctoral student in communications. VHIL is considering working with labs in France, Tahiti and Jamaica to explore the possibility of an international HIV/AIDS study.

The researchers are also tackling issues such as sexism, racism and ageism by placing subjects into virtual bodies different from their own. It can be a shock for a racist white person to suddenly find themselves wearing a black skinned body, and interfacing with others through it, for example.

?People react to avatars as if they are real people,? Joo Ahn said. ?It?s amazing that they know they?re in virtual reality yet they react with everyday social behaviour. I would like to apply the findings to situations where people can learn from virtual reality environments.?

In the near future, Bailenson predicts, people?s virtual identities will play a larger role in their lives.

See the full Story via external site: daily.stanford.edu



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