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Trust and Judgement in VR: Still based on looks
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Trust and Judgement in VR: Still based on looks

It seems that we are approaching a critical juncture in the uncanny valley as related to avatars. We may well be encroaching on the point where physical world lessons on how to look become mandatory for avatars as well.

Quite recently, . So Karl MacDorman of Indiana University in Indianapolis, Indiana, led a study to see how interaction with realistic avatars differed when the participant was faced with an ethical dilemma. The full report from that study can be found at the end of this article.

Quoting from the abstract:

"Simulated humans in computer interfaces are increasingly taking on roles that were once reserved for real humans. The presentation of simulated humans is affected by their appearance, motion quality, and interactivity. These presentational factors can influence the decisions of those who interact with them. This is of concern to interface designers and users alike, because these decisions often have moral and ethical consequences. However, the impact of presentational factors on decisions in ethical dilemmas has not been explored.

This study is intended as a first effort toward filling this gap. In a between-groups experiment, a female character presented participants with an ethical dilemma. The character's human photorealism and motion quality were varied to generate four stimulus conditions: real Human versus Computer-Generated character × Fluid versus Jerky movement."

Interestingly, whilst the report has cast a great deal of light on several behavioural tendencies in virtual environments, one of the most keenly noticeable is the gender-bias. Female avatars being judged far more critically on their appearance than male ones.

The study used a sample group of 682 individuals, all volunteers, to run through the same scenarios.

The volunteer takes on the role of a consulting physician, who has to judge between several directly competing ethical dilemmas. One of those scenarios where there is no right or wrong answer, but it is up to the individual to find a happy middle ground as best they can.

Two patients are in the program, Kelly and Paul Gordon, a married couple. Initially the volunteer interacts with Kelly in a private session on the day before Paul is to see the same physician. Kelly has contracted genital herpes, but does not want the doctor to tell her husband this.

A difficult enough decision at the best of times. However, there is not a single Kelly. Instead there are four of her. Two human women, two avatar women. One of each is smoothly animated, the other is jerky with missing frames in the interaction sequences. For control purposes all four Kellys were lip-synched to the same actress voice.

A quarter of the volunteers were assigned to interact with each Kelly, and the results observed.


Avatar and human Kelly for comparison.

The results of the study - whether or not the volunteer decided to tell Paul of the condition - were then analysed according to which Kelly they had seen, and differences in trend noted.

Interestingly enough, when the results were paired down again, this time by gender of the volunteer, the strongest trends appeared. Again, taking a quote from the study:

"Female participants were consistent in strongly favouring Kelly across all stimulus conditions (51.8% selected "No-No" in the CG Jerky condition, 50.0% in CG Fluid, 52.2% in Human Jerky, and 54.3% in Human Fluid).

However, far fewer male participants strongly favoured Kelly in the CG Jerky stimulus condition (31.2%) as compared to the CG Fluid (46.3%), Human Jerky (53.0%), and Human Fluid (50.0%) stimulus conditions. CG Jerky was, of course, the condition in which both Kelly's appearance and movement were the least human. The differences is male and female decision patterns were statistically significant overall."

Thus the evidence does suggest that human males cannot help but be swayed in their argument by how a female looks. Everything else being equal, the appearance of the visage before them matters. Far more so than it does for females.

One study that needs to be done following this, is to use a male avatar/human instead of female, and see if the gender bias swings the other way as well. The need for this is also noted in the study.

Still, with the data gathered so far, there is sufficient evidence to recommend that female avatar interaction should be very careful to focus on appearance in a business situation, something which is going to become more frequent as integration with VR technologies progresses.

References

Gender Differences in the Impact of Presentational Factors in Human Character Animation on Decisions in Ethical Dilemmas (PDF)

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