Virtual reality is no longer just the hypothetical domain of sci-fi movies. It promises great freedom — consider an avatar that increases your self-efficacy, or surgical training applications for physicians.
Experts in the field Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson examine how virtual worlds are becoming an increasingly bigger part of our real lives in their book, “Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution.” We spoke to Bailenson, who runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, about how virtual reality will transform us — for better and worse.
Brain World: Put simply, how is virtual reality changing the world?
Jeremy Bailenson: People have used media for centuries — but today’s media has become perceptually convincing. Virtual reality fools the brain into believing that digital events are actually occurring. This has drastic implications for social interaction, education, entertainment, and just about every facet of life.
BW: You write that the shift we’re experiencing — to a virtual world — is “close to inevitable, given how humans are wired neurophysiologically.” Why is that?
JB: The brain is receptive to what psychologists call “mind wandering.” Humans have always been fans of daydreaming, imagination, and entertainment which involves mental transportation. Virtual reality allows the mind to wander to places that — in terms of how they look, sound, feel, and smell — seem just as real as their physical locale.
BW: Your interest in the subject is through the lens of psychology rather than technology. How does that mean you approach it?
JB: Virtual reality involves mental transportation and can occur without any technology — for example, a well-done set in a theater. Technology simply allows simulations that previously were rare and costly to build to become pervasive.
BW: Is there a difference in the brain when you’re having a virtual experience versus being in actual reality?
JB: While the evidence using fMRI to compare virtual and physical interactions is complex, most experiments show that a perceptually rich virtual experience causes similar neural reactions to a physical one.
BW: Do we need to be concerned about how our brains are being altered by this new digital world?
JB: Virtual reality has drastic implications for mental health — both positive and negative. Dozens of experiments show that actions which occur virtually, for example having a prosocial or anti-social experience, can affect how we later behave in the physical world.
BW: How can we expect our society and culture to change after spending so much of our time in virtual worlds?
JB: Culture is already changing. Children between the ages of 6 and 16 spend over eight hours per day, outside of the classroom, using digital media, according to a recent study published by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The manners in which this digital lifestyle is shaping their worldview cannot be underestimated.
BW: You claim that our digital identities don’t just represent us, they in fact shape us. How so?
JB: Many psychology experiments demonstrate that avatars, representations of ourselves in virtual reality, change the way we think and the way we behave. For example, wearing a taller avatar will cause us to become confident in the physical world; wearing an attractive one will cause is to behave more socially. Wearing disabled avatars can cause us to become compassionate, and using healthy and active avatars can change our physical eating and exercise habits. Even small amounts of exposure to avatars can cause this behavioral transformation.
BW: What is one of the coolest, or wildest, virtual reality applications you’re expecting in the near future?
JB: We are designing a conservation application that makes people viscerally aware of their energy use. Virtual reality can make the invisible become visible, so people can be very aware of carbon they produce on a daily basis when their avatar is surrounded by their own byproducts. Experiments we have run in the lab have demonstrated that using VR is an effective tool to change environmental behavior.