The world may be virtual, but change is real

In the world of journalism, it takes serious investigation to change the future of our society; in the virtual world of Jeremy Bailenson, changing the future of our society can be as fun as playing a video game.

Martyn Williams, Jeremy Bailenson and Deepa Fernandes

Virtual Reality Lab chief Jeremy Bailenson, center, speaks with Knight Fellows Martyn Williams and Deepa Fernandes. photo: Aaron Huey

Bailenson has combined more than nine years of virtual reality research into the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, and those who enter are exposed to a real-time 3-D environment, where fantasies like flight or being a superhero become a reality.

Bailenson recently opened his lab up to this year’s Knight Fellows and in a matter of minutes we became the data inside the computer.

Like in “The Matrix,” “Avatar,” or “Tron,” we were no longer journalists in the real world, but instead characters in a virtual reality (VR).

“It’s a high-tech vision of the future. Virtual reality can change how people behave, because they feel totally engaged,” Bailenson said. “We are not engineers; our job is to understand the psychological and societal implications of spending time online.”

A sophisticated 3-D monitor, mounted on the wall of the lab’s lobby, allows visitors to see 3-D images without wearing glasses. “This is the way your living room will look soon,” Bailenson said.

A door to the right leads to an inner sanctum where more than 20 computers, eight cameras and 24 speakers, hidden behind a wall, help create the illusion of a virtual world.

One by one, we Knight Fellows had the opportunity to wear the lab’s $40,000 high-tech mask. With small monitors in front of each eye, the mask recreates an overall field of vision of almost 110 degrees and gives the sense of being transported to a different world.

The lab – developed by Bailenson in 2003, when he was a Ph.D. student and undergraduate programmer – reproduces three virtual senses: sight, sound and touch.

Knight Fellow Beth Daley, environment reporter for The Boston Globe, was taken to a virtual forest where, with a hand-held device simulating a chainsaw (even offering resistance and vibrating in her hands), she cut down a virtual tree.

“Wow!” she exclaimed as the floor shuddered with the tree’s impact. (The effect is created by floor vibrations from speakers mounted beneath the floor.)

The study of VR involves tracking motions and rendering feedback. Bailenson explained that people are more likely to save forests and use recycled paper if they realize how many trees are consumed by the paper industry.

“A lot of work that we do in the lab is designed to answer the question, ‘Does a virtual experience change you later on in the physical world?'”

According to Bailenson, virtual reality has a great many potential uses in education, business, environment and national security, among other sectors.

“Dozens of psychological experiments have shown that people change after spending time in the virtual world,” he added.

Another experiment designed by Bailenson places a person in front of a virtual mirror where he sees himself as a different ethnicity. This has resulted in generating more empathy for people from different racial backgrounds.

As a result of total immersion in a virtual world, participants report a very real sense of being in another place, a phenomenon known as “cognitive presence.” In another Bailenson experiment, a person sees himself with a healthy body, and it has resulted in the individual shaping his diet to create that effect in the real world.

During the Knight Fellows’ tour, T. Christian Miller, senior reporter for ProPublica, tested a scenario in which he flew through the skies like a superhero, looking for kids to rescue. The test is designed to measure the psychological effect of being a superhero (instead of an agent of destruction) in a video game.

It’s an interesting test, because of the impact it could have. After all, as Bailenson notes, “Kids consume more time playing video games than they do going to movies or reading combined.”

In a second lab, the Knight Fellows experienced the sensation of walking through a space. A set of cameras track the lights from a pair of special glasses and constantly update the virtual scene in two 3-D monitors high on the walls and change the view based on the person’s position.

Virtual reality could eliminate the need to travel, Bailenson says. People will have the opportunity to be immersed in a different country in the comfort of their homes — and without having to spend thousands of dollars on airline tickets.

The roots of the term, “Virtual Reality”, can be traced back to the 1980s. It was then that electrical engineer Thomas Furness developed a system for the Air Force in which the pilot could operate some of the aircraft’s controls by performing natural actions, such as looking, pointing and touching.

According to Bailenson, Stanford’s is currently the best in the world. “But it will be obsolete in six months,” he laughed. People’s lives are about to cross the merely interactive 3-D experience to full immersion.

“For years, the VR people have said that virtual reality will be in your living room ‘next year’, and I always doubted; but now, I am saying that VR will be in the living room next year.”