In the realm of Virtual Reality (VR), users can completely transform their appearance as avatars and their digital environments, all at the click of a button. In a groundbreaking new study, researchers from Stanford University have examined how this unique and profound ability has a significant impact on social interactions in the metaverse – the term for immersive virtual worlds, experienced via VR headsets, where more and more people are coming together to play and work.
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“In the metaverse, you can be anyone or anywhere,” says the study’s lead author Eugy Handoctoral student in communication advised by Jeremy BailensonProfessor Thomas More Storke at School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University. “Our ongoing work reported in this study shows who and where you are is extremely important for learning, collaboration, socialization and other metaverse activities.”
The study, published in the journal of computer mediated communicationis the latest innovation from Stanford University Virtual people Classes. Taught by Bailenson and his colleagues, the course is among the first and largest ever taught primarily in virtual reality.
For the study, 272 college students used VR headsets to meet in virtual environments for 30 minutes once a week for eight weeks. During these sessions, students participated in two experiments, accumulating hundreds of thousands of minutes of interactions for researchers to analyze.
Real Benefits of Virtual Environments
An experiment evaluated the effects of where students were, through a range of digital environments. The other experiment evaluated the effects of who the students were, via the way they presented themselves as avatars.
In the experience focused on virtual environments, students interacted in small or spacious virtual environments, both indoors and outdoors. The researchers created 192 unique environments with these varying attributes, from narrow wagons to vast enclosed arenas and walled gardens to endless fields.
When in large open virtual spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, students exhibited greater nonverbal synchrony and reported increases in many positive measures such as group cohesion, fun, excitement, presence, and enjoyment, in relation to student interaction in a constrained environment. . The study also showed that outdoor environments with elements of nature generated more positive feelings regardless of the apparent size of the virtual space. “Where you are in the metaverse can have a major impact on your experience and the shared experience of a party,” says Han. “Large, open, scenic spaces that people can move around in really helped with group behavior.”
The results therefore suggest that people can take advantage of the available grandeur of virtual reality by opting for large outdoor environments instead of recreating cramped meeting rooms or amphitheaters.
“At the very heart of collaboration, people are introducing and reacting to each other in a productive way,” says Bailenson, “and our data shows that all of these great downstream things happen when you make your virtual rooms larger than a traditional office space. ”
Sense of self in VR
In the other experiment, the students interacted with each other virtually either as self-avatars, which resembled the students’ actual physical world appearances, or as generic avatars which all looked and dressed like each other. in the same way. The researchers observed the students’ VR behaviors, and the students reported their feelings on measures such as group cohesion, presence, enjoyment, and realism.
The study found that when represented by avatars that looked like them, students displayed more non-verbal synchronicity, meaning they gestured and stood the same in relation to each other. Consistent with these observations, students reported feeling more “in tune” with themselves and each other when coming together as self-avatars. When depicted as generic avatars and therefore “not themselves” virtually, students reported the experience to be entertaining and liberating. “People liked being in generic avatars stripped of any identity,” says Han. “On the other hand, when represented by self-avatars, students reported feeling more active and engaged.”
Real impacts, virtual locations and avatars
A key takeaway from these results is that for more productive and collaborative interactions – such as for business purposes or in the workplace – self-avatars are the preferred option. “When you get serious in the metaverse, you want to be like yourself,” says Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s. Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) and also co-author of the study.
Importantly, both experiments found that the reported benefits of interacting virtually with certain avatars and in certain environments increased over time. Bailenson says these results suggest the effects are long-lasting and not just isolated, positive VR experiences.
The study also demonstrates the potential of virtual reality as an innovative and insightful way to conduct psychological studies, given its limitless digital possibilities and low costs compared to alternatives in the physical world.
“In the history of social science, there are very few studies of the psychological effect of huge indoor spaces, for the obvious reason that it is, for example, very expensive to rent Madison Square Garden to hold a meeting of four people,” Bailenson said. “But in VR, the cost disappears, and one of the most compelling findings from our study is that huge indoor spaces have much of the same redeeming psychological value as being outdoors.”
Additional Stanford co-authors of this research include graduate students Cyan DeVeaux, Hanseul Jun, and Mark Miller; Jeffrey Hancock, Harry and Norman Chandler Professor of Communication; and Nilam Ramprofessor of communication and psychology.
Co-author Kristine Nowak, is from the University of Connecticut.
Bailenson is also a Principal Investigator at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environmentmember of Stanford Bio-Xmember of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Allianceprincipal researcher of Stanford Woods Institute for the Environmentand member of the Wu Tsai Institute of Neuroscience. Hancock is also a member of Stanford Bio-X and a faculty affiliated with the Institute for Human-centered artificial intelligence (HAI).
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