My Virtual Reality

While I was in the Bay Area, I made my way down the Peninsula to my alma mater, Stanford University, and visited the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which turns out to be housed in my old department, Communication (I graduated with that major in 1990). Ah, what my life would have been like if I were fifteen years younger…

The appearance of the lab itself is unimpressive, to say the least. Just your typical room with some desks, computers, and industrial carpet. But boy do they have some cool stuff there. Thanks to Jesse Fox, one of the researchers, there, I was able to sample the goods. I donned the “happy helmet” and entered a virtual world. The helmet was heavy and clunky — not the sort of thing you would wear if you didn’t have to. And, as Jesse pointed out, the thing was so expensive this is not the sort of toy that is going to be in households across the country any time soon. But it did allow me to blend the concrete with the perceptual. I looked down and found myself standing vicariously close to a deep pit. Virtual board crossing the chasm, I was told to make my way across. I found it hard to balance on the actual carpeted floor, as I struggled to stay on the plank that was nothing more than an image cast by the helmet. But I made it safely across! Jesse said that 1 in 3 refuse to even try. I increase my bravado by “jumping” into the pit on my way back across and was somewhat startled by the crashing noise I made as I jumped an inch in the air, spiraling down a virtual 30 feet, and crashing at the bottom.

Next trick: crossing the road like Frogger. Here is where I horribly failed. I was run over seven times at least, ran into a sign post (virtual) and almost the wall (actual — thanks Jesse for saving me!). It was really hard to balance. But the overall sensation was like being in a video game — but even cooler than Tron. And, since I totally suck at video games, it’s probably not surprising that I pretty much sucked at navigating myself in virtual reality.

Then, onto some of the tasks that are used in actual research. While I won’t disclose the actual hypotheses or findings (none of this is published yet), my last activity consisted of walking up to a life-sized avatar and studying her. The feeling was odd, walking up to a young woman about my height but clearly not made of flesh and blood. There were two women I stood next to, as if in conversation: One wearing jeans and a hoodie, her brown hair collected into a pony tail. The other was a bombshell in a tight t-shirt, short skirt and super cool boots (I want a pair!). I was instructed just to study them. The sexier one, I noticed, was programmed to make eye contact with me as I looked; the stereotypical college student did not.

The overall goal of this study was to document gender differences in examining the avatars and look at attitudes about women based on who subjects were interacting with. Stay tuned for results!

While the experience I had is not likely to be shared by many in the general population, the Virtual Lab is hoping its findings can apply to video games and Second Life. I had some doubts — like, the avatar I chilled with could single me out much more closely than anyone can really in SL and she was literally my size, making her seem more real than the people in most video games — I believe that trying to tie in virtual experiences with actions in the concrete world is one of the coolest things being done in research today.