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Spanish researchers test reality against virtual reality

posted 24 Nov 2010, 09:13 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 24 Nov 2010, 09:15 ]

How real can virtual reality be? Researchers in Spain are now able to test empathy in individuals by pursuading them in a virtual setting that they are, in fact, somebody else.

A Spanish team investigating how much virtual reality we are prepared to believe are testing men by making them appear to occupy the body of a young girl and then showing her being attacked.

The researchers, at the University of Barcelona, put 24 men through the process, recording their pulse and breathing and stroking their arm in time with the virtual reality images.

The work has it roots in the so-called rubber hand experiments of the late 90's which first revealed the ability of people to believe a false hand was theirs if their own hand and the rubber one were stroked at the same time and in the same way.

But the Barcelona team want to know if that applies to the whole body, according to Bernhard Spanlang, a researcher in virtual environments.

"Synchronous stroking makes people believe more that this body is their body but on the other hand, in addition, what we do in this virtual reality is that we show it from a first person perspective so when you look down you actually see the girls body and this showed to be more important than the synchronous or asynchronous stroking," said Spanlang.

The virtual reality scenario starts with the volunteer seeing a girl and a woman at the other end of a room. That perspective then changes and the volunteer is transported into the girl's chair. When the volunteer looks down, he sees the girl's legs and skirt. The virtual woman standing next to them strokes their arm, while a researcher in the real world mimics that movement. Seven minutes elapse, to allow the volunteer to become comfortable with the environment, before the virtual view changes again and the volunteer is now looking down on the room to see the woman attack the girl.

Immediately after the experience volunteers were asked to rate how strongly they felt they were the girl. On average, they felt more strongly that the woman was stroking them and that, to a lesser degree, the girl's body was theirs.

The team are also investigating how relevant the image quality is to the response of the volunteers.

"The images in this experiment are quite bad, like there is no shadows, there is no global illumination, like there is no shading or lighting and people still responded as you would expect them to respond. We've done other experiments where we actually looked at how much realism is important and it shows that what is important is not the visual quality but just the way the virtual reality reacts to what you are doing," Spanlang said.

Virtual Reality is already being used by the US military to treat troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and the team believe it has potential for use in therapy and training.

"If you had some abuser put into a virtual reality where they were actually the victim of abuse that could change their view of what they are actually causing to that person. So if they would associate with the victim, stronger, that would probably help them to understand what they are causing," he said.

Spanlang said the new wave of 3D consumer technology will make virtual reality commonplace into the home and cites the popularity of the Wii as an example.