Examining and Understanding Human Behavior Through VR

In my opinion, the one unique aspect about virtual reality (VR) that the media does not fully grasp is how its interactive, real-time simulations within simulated three-dimensional space can influence and observe users in ways that other forms of media (e.g., print, radio, television, and film) cannot. Because of the advanced computational power that supports it, VR can measure the behavior of its users and then be modified based upon the data collected to create better, more impactful experiences. This unique trait of VR was the topic of "Enter The Mind: Virtual Reality and Psychology", an event that was sponsored by DC Virtual Reality (DCVR) and Virtual Reality User Experience (VRUXDC) and hosted at the AARP’s Hatchery last Tuesday night in Washington DC.

The two presenters at this event were Dr. Susan Persky, who directs the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Area (IVETA) in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch (SBRB) within the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Brennan Hatton, the CTO of Equal Reality, a company that uses VR to conduct diversity and inclusion training.

Persky discussed how she implements VR technology in researching health communication. During her presentation, she focused on VR-based testing she conducted to observe how doctors and patients interact with each other and how parents responded to specific messages regarding their children's dietary choices. By using a simulated medical setting and a selection of avatars to represent patients of different sizes and skin color, Persky and her team could measure how the doctors' behavior changed according to a patient's physical attributes. Eye contact specifics, which kinds of medical advice the doctors chose to provide, and expectations the doctors had of whether the patients would adhere to the advice were all areas of measurement that could be measured by using VR technology. In the case of dietary choices, Persky used VR to create a virtual food buffet which was used to closely monitor selections that parents made for their children after they received specific information about their children's risk of obesity. You can download a PDF copy of Persky’s IVETA presentation here.

A visit to IVETA's virtual doctor's office.

In the second presentation, Hatton spoke about how he and his company build VR simulations that train corporations and the military about discrimination and bullying in workplace. Such training includes simulations of minority perspectives and experiences, which trainees experience by first assuming the roles of avatars that are based on people of different backgrounds, and then choosing an experience and environment to go with the selected avatar. As the selection of clients grows for Equal Reality, Hatton plans to diversify his company’s content by making it more customizable so that it can be tailored to more specific settings, situations, and issues. To see some of Equal Reality’s work, you can visit its YouTube channel; if you have an HTC Vive headset, you can download its free beta demo at Viveport.

During their presentations, Persky and Hatton both discussed the limitations of the VR format when using it to pursue their specific objectives. Persky noted problems that her team encountered, such as uneven interactions with avatars, the limitations of haptics, and how VR does not provide a wider range of sensory input (e.g., the lack of smell while providing simulations of food). Persky even noted how some research participants have become so distracted by the VR technology itself that it threatened the validity of simulations (i.e., visiting a doctor’s office in VR is much more interesting than visiting an actual doctor’s office). In contrast, Hatton identified scalability problems with VR equipment: sometimes, only two VR headsets were available for 30-person workshops, which meant that the VR experience that each person in the workshop could have was limited to two to five minutes. As such, the workshop instructors had to use other materials and methodologies in addition to VR in order for the workshop to be successful. Furthermore, Hatton mentioned incidents where users who had experienced harassment before found themselves reliving such emotional pain when using the VR simulations. In spite of these setbacks, Persky and Hatton still see plenty of potential in VR, as the technology becomes more portable, cheaper, and easier to use.

(Being familiar with IT security, I was surprised to hear both presenters mention that if enough information about user behavior is collected by a VR system, individual users could be identified just by how they use the system. To use professional IT terminology, this kind of data would be considered "personally identifiable information (PII)".)

I, avatar: Equal Reality's software in action.

While reflecting on the subjects covered during the "Enter The Mind” presentations, I thought about an article I read the other week by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom called "It's Ridiculous to Use Virtual Reality to Empathize With Refugees", which was published by The Atlantic on February 3, 2017. Ostensibly a review of several VR projects that were designed to encourage empathy with the lived experiences of refugees, Bloom uses his article to point out the inherent limitations of using brief, voluntary experiences to convince people to empathize with others who live vastly different lifestyles. He concludes that the only effective means of generating empathy towards others is not electronic at all:

"Affordable, durable, and small enough to hold in one hand, these devices allow you to simulate not only the physical environment of individuals, but also their psychological experiences, and can do this for multiple people, moving forward and backward in time. They enable you to experience the most private experiences of others, both by triggering your own memories and by extending your imagination in radical ways. ... These “empathy machines” are books, of course--as in novels and journalism and autobiography … when it comes to understanding the lives of others, nothing else comes close."

In his blanket dismissal of non-print media, Bloom completely overlooks VR's ability to track user reactions and what can be learned about human nature from such data. In contrast, Persky and Hatton articulated the unique contributions VR can make in their presentations, emphasizing how VR has become--and will continue to be--an innovative tool to measure human behavior in particular circumstances and devise strategies that encourage positive behavioral change.


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