How are you represented in an online, digital space? And does that representation impact you in your real, physical life? Your voice is turned into 1’s and 0’s on a cell phone, your social life is represented in your Facebook page, your career in your Linked-In page, and you – yourself – as an avatar when you enter a 3D, immersive virtual environment. When you’re in these virtual worlds, it feels real. As humans we respond to virtual stuff as if it is real stuff – why is that? And what impact might that have on our real-life behavior?
Jeremy Bailenson, the Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHL), and Nick Yee, a PhD student in the lab, work with these questions every day. They, along with the other researchers, conduct fascinating experiments around human representation in immersive virtual worlds. Their studies explore the way that people represent themselves, communicate and relate in virtual space, and the effect that altered faces, gestures, and nonverbal cues have on human behavior. In this hour-long talk, given at Harvard’s Berkman Center, Bailenson describes some of their experiments and the results they’ve obtained. This edited segment, featuring a CNN Future Summit panel with Nick Yee, will give you a good feeling for the work they’ve done in the VHL (among other things!).
In Bailenson’s lab, they use computer vision algorithms to create avatar heads that look like you and gesture like you. It’s not perfect – but it’s pretty darned close. In the physical world, I do something and you see it. In the digital world, I do something and information about the actions I performed is sent to your computer, the environment we’re in together redraws my representation using that data, and you see a change in my avatar. Bailenson points out that the sent information can be strategically filtered, or differently optimized. For instance, one speaker’s eye gaze can be focused on each and every person in the audience during their talk or a speaker’s face can be morphed to look just a little bit like you, rendering her more appealing to you.
The VHL has documented evidence of changes in subject behavior – stronger attention, more effective persuasion, favorable evaluation, better negotiation techniques, attraction – due to manipulation of virtual representations. These results have encouraged the VHL to ask the question: when the subject sees himself (as an avatar) exhibiting a certain characteristic, does he change his real-life behavior in order to fall in line with his virtual self? For example, do we behave differently when our avatar is taller than we actually are? More attractive than we actually are? Thinner than we are? What happens to you when you watch your digital representation do something that you’ve never done yourself? One of the researchers in Bailenson’s lab has conducted health behavior studies with an avatar, altered to resemble the subject, exercising and getting thinner as a result of their exersie. In their experiments, the subjects would themselves exercise, in real life, on average, ten times longer than those watching an avatar who does not look like them or someone who didn’t watch an avatar at all and, instead, were told to visualize themselves, in their mind, exercising. Approaching health behavior from the other direction, the lab performed studies with subjects watching their avatars getting fatter as they repetitively ate bowls of candy. The subjects, watching their avatar perform this behavior, come out of the lab and report feeling “too full” or “sick to their stomach”.
My mind races, contemplating the ramifications of this incredible research. The dangers are obvious – manipulating the truth, planting false memories, embedded false consequences, and scarily rendered torques of your behavior. But the positives are even more breathtaking. How could people improve their lives and relationships?
There is a direct connection here with the Boston Medical Center NIH study I am working on. I’ve described this NIH project in a previous blog post but, to recap, this study sets out to investigate different methods for improving health behaviors of African-American women suffering from uncontrolled type 2 diabetes. In our study, the experimental group, will meet weekly in Second Life, over eight sessions, with dietitians and nurse educators to learn about their disease, diet, exercise, and medications. The control group will meet in real life with the same educators and the exact same content. For the past four months we’ve been designing virtual world activities to shape our subject’s experience in SL. Our plan is for all the subjects to start with a standard-issue African-American avatar, altered to appear at the average weight of the patient pool (all will be identical), that can then be modified over the course of the study – by the patient or by the researchers. What will be the impact on this experimental population’s health behaviors when they can see their avatar exercising more, eating better, and making healthier choices? What will be the impact on the patients when they see their avatar getting thinner and stronger?
In an effort to extend and expand the range of activities the patients in our study might experience in the virtual world, Janalee Redmond (SL= Jenn Forager) and Liz Dorland (SL= Chimera Cosmos) recently introduced me to Celeste DeVaneaux (SL= CelesteAngelique Zapatero), the Creative Director of the new Club One Island. This is a virtual fitness club built by the Club One Fitness company – which owns real life fitness clubs in California. Their idea with this vitual club is to leverage this avatar effect that Bailenson has researched (sometimes referred to as the Proteus Effect). Yesterday Celeste took us on a tour of the newly opened Club One and it’s quite an amazing place. If you can bear with me on this long blog post, I’ll take you through a tour of what we saw during our time with Celeste. You can also read this Hypergrid Business article about Club One for deeper background.
Club One has the usual, real-world fitness facilities (weights, gym, yoga room, rock climbing, swimming pool, trampolines, steam rooms, locker rooms etc) all beautifully and realistically rendered:
And one of my favorites, The Room of Doom, where your avatar can pick up big rubber mallets and bash the junk food that floats around the room – donuts, potato chips, candy, ice cream – it’s great fun and leverages that unique, playful aspect of the virtual world.