Understanding the interplay between virtual and actual reality is at the heart of the work under way in Associate Professor of Communications Jeremy Bailenson's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
If a tree falls in a virtual reality forest, will anyone hear an environmental message?
They will, as long as they were the ones who cut down the make-believe redwood.
New findings from Stanford researchers show that people who were immersed in a three-dimensional virtual forest and told to saw through a towering sequoia until it crashed in front of them later used less paper in the real world than people who only imagined what it's like to cut down a tree.
"We found that virtual reality can change how people behave," said Sun Joo Ahn, whose doctoral dissertation outlines the findings. "That's the big result. When people are in virtual reality and going through the motions of actually cutting down this tree, it might make them feel more personally accountable or responsible for the damage that occurred."
Ahn's work is among the latest batch of studies to come from Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Led by Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication, researchers in the lab are trying to better understand how advances in digital media like 3-D movies and interactive video games are affecting people's real-life experiences. And they want to know how those technologies can influence and change people's behavior.
"People want – and are becoming more used to – immersive media experiences," said Bailenson, co-author of the recently released book Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution. "You're going to need more than an instructional video or a pamphlet to explain something that requires a change in behavior. You need to make people feel like they're literally engaged."
In one of her studies, Ahn had about 50 people read some information about how the use of non-recycled paper leads to deforestation.
She then had one group of subjects read an account of what happens when a chainsaw buzzes through a tree. The piece was rich with detail, describing the chirping birds in the forest, the sound and vibration of the saw and the snapping of branches that comes with the crash of the mighty redwood.
A second group of subjects didn't read the description, but instead were plunged into the virtual forest. Outfitted with a helmet-like device that cut off their vision from the real world and surrounded them with the sights and sounds of a computerized woodland, they felt like they were there.
Using a special joystick called a haptic device, the subjects were able to control the back-and-forth motions of the chainsaw that their virtual selves used to cut down the tree. As they sawed for about three minutes, the haptic device vibrated in their hands to simulate the feeling of the real thing.
Regardless of which group they were in, all the participants said they had a stronger belief that their personal actions could improve the quality of the environment compared to how they felt before they either read about tree cutting or chopped down an evergreen in the fake forest.