Virtual Environments and Behavior
What happens when a test subject fitted with a head-mounted display
enters a room and sees a computer-generated person? Does he or she treat the
computer-simulated person, or "avatar," like a real person? And what is the
reaction if the avatar is actually a representation of the test subject?
These are among questions investigated by scientists
with the multi-disciplinary Research Center for Virtual Environments and
Behavior (ReCVEB) at the University of California at Santa Barbara, under a
grant from the National Science Foundation.
One of the researchers, Professor Jack M. Loomis of the UCSB
Psychology Department, notes that "in psychology we are always confronted with
a trade-off between realism and experimental control. We can either have really
nice and tightly controlled studies, typically done in a laboratory with very
artificial situations, or we can try to do something closer to the real world."
But with computer-generated virtual reality, he says, "you can have the
possibility of purchasing a lot more experimental control with the same level
The ReCVEB project focuses on immersive virtual environments
as a basic research tool in four areas: learning, visual perception, social
interaction and social influence, and spatial cognition. In the experiments,
test subjects are fitted with a head-mounted apparatus containing two miniature
television displays, presenting a three-dimensional but computer-modified
version of the external environment.
"The idea is to bring people into a virtual environment
where they're confronted with simulated people and to see whether you can
elicit social reactionsif the people will respond to these
computer-generated people as if they were real. A lot of the research that's
been done so far is looking at the question of whether you can elicit social
responses and whether it matters if people know whether there's a real person
behind the avatar or not," Loomis says.
According to Professor Loomis, "Research has shown that
people do treat these computer-generated people somewhat the way they do real
people. They sort of give them some space." The researchers compare the
reactions of test subjects depending on how realistic the avatars are in
simulating real people.
In other experiments, the avatars may be representations of
the test subjects themselves. Those experiments, Loomis says, show that people
are "more willing to invade the space of an avatar of themselvesthey're
more familiar with themselves, so they don't mind intruding more on that
representation that they see."
The research at ReCVEB has involved about six faculty
members, two postdoctoral fellows, six graduate students, and 50 to 60
undergraduates, as well as computer programmers and other support staff.
Additional faculty members involved include Professor James J. Blascovich,
chairman of the UCSB Psychology Department. The program also has included an
NSF-funded summer school for social psychology researchers, to teach them how
to conduct virtual reality work.
Other ReCVEB projects include researchers from the arts,
communication, and clinical psychology.
Back to Top of Page