Skip to contents

National Science Foundation Logo

Search KDI Site

Banner: Multi-Disciplinary Research at NSF: Accomplishments of the KDI Initiative
 KDI Home    Contact Us   

Image: People Button

Image: Ideas Button

Image: Tools Buttong

 About KDI

 Behind the Scenes

 Taking Stock

 Links and Resources



Virtual Environments and Behavior

Image of virtual environment experimentWhat 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 of realism."

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.

Image of showing participants in virtual environment experiments

"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 reactions—if 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 themselves—they'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

People | Ideas | Tools
About KDI | Behind the Scenes | Taking Stock | Links and Resources

KDI Home | Contact Us | Site Map
NSF Home | CISE Home | Privacy Statement | Policies | Accessibility

National Science Foundation: Celebrating 50 Years Logo The National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-5111, FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090