Saturday, September 24, 2016

Real Life Through Virtual Reality

Real Life Through the Lens

Virtual reality isn’t just about entertainment — it’s also about helping people understand the world around them. By Heather Millar

Real Life Through the Lens
Illustration by Phil Foster

I’m standing in the lab of Professor Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. The 20-by-20 room is state-of-the-art: A “haptic” floor of aeronautic metal will vibrate and move to simulate the physical world. Speakers all around the room will immerse me in surround sound. A ring of cameras will track my every move. I put on a headset that fills my whole field of vision. It’s connected to a supercomputer that, reacting to my movements, will redraw my virtual environment 75 times a second.

In this program, I’m a superhero who flies. When I put my arms above my head in a classic Superman pose, I shoot off the ground. The floor rumbles, simulating the feeling of taking off in an airplane. My heart skips a beat. “Wow!” I exclaim involuntarily. When I move my arms to the right or left, I fly in that direction. As I get the hang of navigation, I zoom around an imaginary city. This is what I imagined during all those years of childhood cartoons.

When I take the virtual-reality headset off a few minutes later, I feel awesome. Invincible, really. Ready to take on the world. When can I do it again?

Sooner rather than later, it seems. In late March, Facebook released the Oculus Rift headset, an immersive virtual-reality setup intended for mass-market use priced at $599 — or about $1,500 with a bundled computer. The first 30 Rift games have gone on sale, with another 100 to follow by the end of the year. On the cheaper end of the spectrum, Google Cardboard headsets are $15, and many virtual--reality apps are free to download.

As with all new, paradigm-shifting technology — radio, TV, internet, social media, smartphones — there are lots of grandiose predictions of how this will change everything. Commentators muse upon what piles of cash it may generate and what dangers it may pose to traditional media.

In this respect, virtual reality may indeed be different. Studies in Bailenson’s lab have shown that virtual reality can feel so real, it actually may have an impact nearly as profound as reality itself.

“We have demonstrated for over a decade that virtual reality is a powerful tool to promote empathy, by having one walk a mile in the shoes of another, virtually,” says Bailenson.

A whole series of studies in the Stanford lab have shown that if you can create a person’s doppelgänger — a virtual twin — in virtual reality, you can change that person’s behavior. People who fly like superheroes, as I did, seem to be more helpful afterward. And these effects hold true in many contexts. For instance: If you show a doppelgänger slowly losing weight as it exercises, the person who’s had that virtual-reality experience will actually work out more in the following week. If you show the doppelgänger growing older in virtual reality, the person who’s seen that will save more money for retirement. If a person cuts down an old, grown redwood tree in virtual reality — feeling the vibration of the chain saw and the crash of the sequoia as it falls — that person is more likely to conserve paper in the future. If virtual reality presents the doppelgänger as slightly more attractive, the person who experienced that will become more socially confident.

“When virtual reality is done well, the brain treats these virtual experiences in manners similar to real ones,” explains Bailenson, whose Ph.D. was actually in cognitive psychology.

Virtual reality can also transport people to realities that aren’t readily accessible, creating a deeper understanding of issues that are difficult to communicate.
For instance, one study in Bailenson’s lab took on the issue of ocean acidification: the problem that greenhouse gas emissions are changing the pH of the seas, making them more acidic, and devastating ecosystems like coral reefs. This is, of course, a complicated topic. Researchers found that if you showed people a video, they didn’t identify with the issue nearly as much as if you gave them a virtual-reality experience of a coral reef changing from a vibrant ecosystem into a damaged, acidified one.

“The virtual-reality platform allows someone who has never even been in the ocean to experience what ocean acidification can do to marine life. We are visual creatures, and visual examples can be very striking,” says Kristy Kroeker, an assistant professor of ecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who helped with the coral-reef study.

Bailenson likes to emphasize that how we use this virtual-reality technology is really up to us. “People can do anything in virtual reality,” he says. “While it’s great to do things you couldn’t do in the physical world, we should avoid the types of experiences you wouldn’t do in the physical world.”

I’m trying not to worry too much about the more negative scenarios. I’m just waiting for my next chance to be a superhero and save the world.

American Way Magazine, August 2016

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