Psychologist Skip Rizzo is director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California. He has been using VR since the 1990s when he became frustrated with the tools available to help rehabilitate people with brain injuries.
I noticed many of my clients were engaged in video games, and people that were very challenged in maintaining attention and focus in everyday activities could focus on those tasks and actually get better.
That was the first light bulb. Could we build virtual environments that represent everyday challenges that would help cognitive rehab?
We started off building virtual environments from video imagery that we had of Iraq and Afghanistan, and talked to a lot of veterans. The environments we created involved riding in a Humvee in a mountainous area, or a desert roadway.
We put somebody in a simulation that is reminiscent of what they were traumatised in, but at a very gradual level so they can handle it. The clinician can control the time of day, the lighting conditions, the ambient sounds.
The therapist tries to mimic what the patient is talking about in their trauma narrative. And eventually by confronting it with therapists, you start to see post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms start to diminish.
We’ve used VR to help people with high-functioning autism be more effective at job interviews. This involves having them practise their interviews with a wide range of interviewers - different age, gender, ethnic background, and different levels of provocativeness.
We know that the brain is quite good at suspending disbelief, so even though people know these aren’t real people, they relate to them as if they are.
This is why VR is so compelling, because whatever is learned in those worlds hopefully will benefit how the person translates their behaviour in the real world.
Nick Yee: Vulnerable reality
Nick Yee is a social scientist who studies how people behave and interact in virtual worlds and online games.
We weren’t interested in the technology for the technology’s sake; the bigger question was using VR as a new platform to study human psychology.
Studies show when we step into virtual bodies, we conform to the expectations of
When we’re in a more attractive body, we leverage stereotypes we have about how attractive people behave.
People perceive taller individuals as being more confident, and we adopt those norms when we too are given a slightly taller body in virtual reality.
You’re more likely to be persuaded by and like a person if you share similar traits, even cues as arbitrary as having the same birthday, the same first name.
Our brains are wired with all these heuristics for who we like, how easily we’re persuaded.
VR is uniquely powerful in terms of its ability to manipulate bodies and faces, and hijack a lot of the soft-wiring of how our brain makes sense of the world.
We ran another study where we had a virtual presenter mimic a participant’s head movements at a four second delay, while the presenter was giving a persuasive argument, and we found that people are more likely to be persuaded when they are being mimicked.
You can imagine running into a computer agent in the virtual world that sort of looks like you, and has a bit of your mannerisms, and you can imagine how much more persuasive that computer agent could be.
This ability in VR to use algorithms to make [computer agents] more likeable, or their message more persuasive, that’s definitely an interesting potential use of virtual worlds.
It absolutely does worry me. We thought about this a lot at the lab. Can people inoculate themselves against these strategies? We were pessimistic. We knew from our own studies that a lot of these manipulations can be subtle to the point of being undetectable, yet still have a measurable impact. It’s hard to guard against them.