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How presence in VR is beneficial for human research

During VRDC 2017 in San Francisco today, head of virtual reality and game design at IBM Research Aldis Sipolins lead a discussion about what VR means for human research.

Emma Kidwell, Contributor

September 22, 2017

3 Min Read

VR has many practical uses outside the sphere games and entertainment. The multiple applications where the technology can be utilized leaves a lot of room for innovation. With that, it comes as no surprise that VR has been used by researchers interested in using the tech to gain insight into human cognition.

During VRDC Fall 2017 in San Francisco today, head of virtual reality and game design at IBM Research Aldis Sipolins lead a discussion about what VR means for human research, and how game design overlaps with experimental design.

When Sipolins experienced VR for the first time, it was with an Oculus DK1 and two motion controllers velcro'd onto the side of his head. With a little work he was able access Minecraft. Being able to peer around a cube in 3D space was a game changer and from then on, he knew VR was going to be invaluable for his work going forward. "I can't overstate how important this is." He said. 

For Sipolins, testing behavior and studying human cognition in VR is a no brainer. "We bring people into the lab and test them using pen and paper. But it makes sense to test things in 3D because we live in 3D." Scientifically speaking, VR accurately mimics how we see. 

"Binocular disparity is the difference between what your eyes see." He said, hand outstretched in front of his face. He described what his left eye could see, and what features his right eye could distinguish. We can't get this same experience from a 2D screen, and a lot of that has to do with presence. 

"VR is good for science because of presence." explains Sipolins. "Your brain's an idiot and VR fools it." Presence in VR is a game-changer for human research, and is used in tandem with machine learning by researchers to get a window into human cognition. He goes on to define the concept of ecological validity, which is how much of the artificial reality you create in the lab translates to the real world.

A great example of this in VR are those who tend to hurt themselves in immersive experiences because the line between what's real and what's not has become blurred. VR has the power to illicit this behavior. Sipolins gives an example of how behavioral studies that seek to study the brain often use rudimentary or clunky techniques. He mentions the struggle of asking a patient to press buttons inside of an MRI machine, and how VR solves the largely solves this issue of presence.  

VR gives you presence, which gives you ecological validity and this is good for research. “You can break presence in a million ways, but the most tragic is when you go to do something and it won’t let you. This is the difference between pressing B to jump and just jumping." He said when mentioning input and output in games.

"If you want to change what someone sees, you can add and remove visual input in VR which means you can create entirely new behaviors. VR enables behavior that would be impossible in real life." 

It's easy to see why Sipolins has a positive outlook on the future of VR, especially when it comes to using the technology for research. "VR gives us a better way to understand the human condition, it can be whatever you want. It doesn’t matter if it’s game design or level design. Good design is good business. Whatever you’re doing, just do good."

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