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.

Experiments in virtual reality

Over the weekend I tried to participate in two different virtual reality type websites. Unfortunately neither were quite the positive experiences I was hoping for.

First I tried out Google’s new avatar-driven chat rooms Lively. I spent two hours preparing my avatar (can’t go in naked, you know) and then trying to figure out how to get INTO a room. Once I got into a room, my computer slowed down so much that I was going crazy trying to mentally adjust. Instead of trying to chat with people, I started searching rooms. I visited the “Love Sweet Love” room, the “Dating Cafe” and then even took a virtual tour of the Google facilities in the “Lively: Google Room,” but I wasn’t impressed. Maybe it’s because it’s too new, but it felt clunky and not quite user-friendly. Maybe teens can deal with that, but tech-savvy adults might be annoyed by the quirks that it still has. I was disappointed that I didn’t feel “at home” after setting everything up and removed the program from my computer soon after giving up on it.

Second, I put my big girl panties on and looked into Second Life. I think my experience would have been more positive if my internet provider gave me more bandwidth and my computer went faster, but I made due with what I had. I carefully read the “Big Six” (community standards) and was almost scared that I’d make an accidental mistake and get myself kicked out before I even began – especially when my character first appeared naked! I was pleased to see these rules set out so clearly before being able to join, and wish that I had speed/bandwidth to see if they work!

Second Life’s “Big Six” are six behaviors that would result suspension from the site:

1. Intolerance – “The use of derogatory or demeaning language or images in reference to another Resident’s race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is never allowed in Second Life.”

2. Harassment – “Communicating or behaving in a manner which is offensively coarse, intimidating or threatening, constitutes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, or is otherwise likely to cause annoyance or alarm is Harassment.”

3. Assault – Most places you can be in Second Life are “Safe,” where you cannot shoot, push or shove another resident. I guess this also means there are areas that are “unsafe” where these actions are to be expected?

4. Disclosure – “Sharing personal information about a fellow Resident –including gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual preference, and real-world location beyond what is provided by the Resident in the First Life page of their Resident profile is a violation of that Resident’s privacy.”

5. Indecency – “Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M).” When my character showed up nude, I was worried that I’d be kicked off immediately as I couldn’t find an “M” anywhere on the page. Good thing it was the introduction page where other new characters continually showed up nude.

6. Disturbing the peace – “Every Resident has the right to live their Second Life.”

I was intrigued to see whether these rules were followed within the community. Maybe those readers who are frequent Second Life users can explain it a bit more to me; I’d really like to know more! Also, if there are other online virtual reality “games,” that are geared towards teenagers, I’d love to hear about those to see if I can’t experiment some more!