VR study shows that virtual avatars and environments can affect your mood

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Your choice of virtual environments and avatars can promote positive psychological outcomes when using virtual reality headsets.

Stanford University researchers reported in a research paper that personal avatars and beautiful environments can be psychologically restorative in a study.

They explored how being able to completely transform your appearance and digital environment affects social interactions in the metaverse.

The researchers wrote in a blog post that the ability to transform your appearance as an avatar and experience outdoor environments in VR could have profound implications for users in the metaverse – the term for immersive virtual worlds, such as those experienced through VR headsets, where people gather in increasing degree to play and work, the researchers said.


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Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

When participants were in “outdoor” VR environments surrounded by images of nature, they reported that the experience was more restorative and gave greater pleasure than when they were in “indoor” VR environments.

“In the metaverse, you can be anyone or anywhere,” study lead author Eugy Han, a graduate student in communications, said in a statement. “Our ongoing work reported in this study shows who you are and where you are matters enormously for learning, collaboration, socialization, and other metaverse activities.”

He was advised by Jeremy Bailenson, a professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University.

The study, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, is the latest to come out of Stanford University’s innovative Virtual People course. Taught by Bailenson and colleagues, the course is among the first and largest ever conducted primarily in VR, the researchers said.

For the study, 272 students used VR headsets to meet in virtual environments for 30 minutes once a week over eight weeks. During these sessions, students participated in two experiments, collecting hundreds of thousands of minutes of interactions for researchers to analyze.

Real benefits from virtual environments

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

One experiment assessed the effect of where students were, across a range of digital environments. The second experiment assessed the effect of who the students were, via how they presented themselves as avatars, the researchers said.

In the experiment focused on virtual environments, students interacted in limited or spacious virtual environments, both indoors and outdoors. The researchers created 192 unique environments with these different characteristics, from cramped train cars to large enclosed arenas and from walled gardens to endless fields, the researchers said.

When in wide-open virtual spaces, either indoors or outdoors, students showed greater nonverbal synchrony and reported increases in many positive measures such as group cohesion, enjoyment, arousal, presence and enjoyment, versus when students interacted in confined settings, the study found.

The study also showed that outdoor environments with elements of nature generated more positive emotions regardless of the apparent size of the virtual space. “Where you are in the metaverse can have a big impact on your experience and the shared experience of a group,” Han said. “Large, open, panoramic spaces for people to move around really helped with group behaviour.”

Consequently, the findings suggest that people can take advantage of the accessible grandeur of VR by choosing large outdoor environments rather than recreating cramped meeting rooms or lecture halls.

“At the very core of collaboration are people participating and responding to each other in a productive way,” Bailenson said in a statement. “And our data shows that all these great downstream things happen when you make your virtual spaces huge compared to a traditional office space.”

Self-esteem in VR

Researchers studied more than 270 students in a VR study.

In the second experiment, students virtually interacted with each other either as self-avatars, which resembled the students’ actual, physical appearances, or as generic avatars that all looked and dressed alike. The researchers observed the students’ VR behavior 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 themselves, students showed more non-verbal synchronization, meaning they gestured and posed in the same way as each other. Consistent with these observations, the students reported feeling more “in sync” with themselves and each other when they gather as self-avatars, the researchers said.

When represented as generic avatars and thus “not themselves” virtually, students reported that the experience was entertainingly liberating. “People liked being in generic avatars stripped of all identity,” Han said. “On the other hand, when represented by self-avatars, students reported feeling more active and engaged.”

Real effects, virtual locations and avatars

Outdoor environments make people feel better in VR.

An important part of these results is that for more productive and collaborative interactions – for example for workplace or professional purposes – self-avatars are the preferred option. “When you get serious in the metaverse, you want to look like you,” said Bailenson, the founder of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) and also a co-author of the study.

Importantly, the two experiments found that the reported benefits of interacting virtually as certain avatars and in certain environments grew over time. Bailenson said these findings suggest the effects are lasting and not just isolated, positive VR experiences.

The study also demonstrates the potential of VR as a new and insightful medium for conducting psychological studies, given its unlimited digital possibilities and low cost compared to alternatives in the physical world.

“In the history of the social sciences, there are very few studies on the psychological effects of huge indoor spaces, for the obvious reason that, for example, renting out Madison Square Garden to hold a four-person meeting is very expensive.” Bailenson said. “But in VR, the costs disappear, and one of the more compelling findings from our study is that vast indoor spaces have much of the same redemptive psychological value of being outdoors.”

In an email to GamesBeat, Bailenson said the team sought to find how people’s behavior and attitudes change over time, how people’s behavior and attitudes change when they embody and are surrounded by different avatars, and how people’s behavior and attitudes change when they interact . in different environmental contexts.

“In my mind, as someone who has studied VR for two decades, there had been some work on avatars in the past, but until this study there was almost no work on time or place,” Bailenson said. ” In terms of time, putting hundreds of people in groups via headset and watching their verbal, nonverbal, and performance data evolve over time is extremely expensive, but because this was in the context of a class, and because we were able to buy a headset for each student, we were able to see that progress in real time.”

He added, “In terms of space, we had coders build 24 new worlds every week specifically to look at the size of the XZ plane and were able to quantitatively answer the question ‘How important is it to have a large panoramic room?” One of the most interesting things from the study is looking at huge indoor rooms, which isn’t something you can do in the real world, but turns out to have a very similar effect to being outdoors does in VR.

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