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Virtual Reality: Virtual Embodiment

Posted 8 Nov 2016

Professor Mel Slater, Maria V. Sanchez-Vives and Bernhard Spanlang, Co-founders of Virtual Bodyworks, explain how virtual reality can alter users’ ideas of presence and identity.

When you open your eyes you become aware of a visual field of about 180° horizontally and 135° vertically. As you move your eyes, head and body around, what you see changes. You see a collection of objects that in most normal circumstances coheres into a scene that has some meaning for you. For instance, if you see grass, trees, flowers, people, dogs, people riding bikes, you may interpret your location as a park.

As you become aware of sounds, you can turn your head around to hear them more distinctly. You reach out to touch an object you can see, or accidentally feel a bump caused by colliding with an object you didn’t see. All of this is completely normal and you don’t think twice about it. You are where you expect to be, you remember the personal circumstances that brought you to that place, and you have at least a rough plan about where you will be going afterwards. It has been this way throughout your whole conscious life, so much so that you have never even thought about this curious set of circumstances: that you are somewhere.

Keep everything the same in the above description, but let’s change a few things. What you see is being computer generated onto two small displays mounted in front of your eyes, so that you are looking at it through an optical system, and you are wearing earphones, and some devices that give you touch feedback. The computer programme is receiving a stream of data that gives it information in real time about your head and body movements, and is updating all displays correspondingly. As you turn your head what you see changes, just like in reality, but now what you are seeing is a virtual reality.

In principle your experience is the same – you are in a park, seeing all the same things as above, except this time no one else in the world is experiencing being in this park. It does not exist, except in the form of electrical impulses in the computer system, which are transformed into meaningful (visual, auditory, haptic) images describing a virtual scene which you are interacting with.

Yet there is something different. Of course the scene might not look as real as ‘reality’. But this is not a fundamental difference, since it is only a question of time when the increasing power of computer and display technology will make it difficult to distinguish a virtual tree blowing in the wind from a real tree. The major difference is that you remember you were standing in an office before putting a contraption over your head, and being transported to a park. How did you get there? Where are you going afterwards?

Although you know what you’re perceiving is not really there, you cannot help but have the illusion you really are in a park. You might see one of the bikers and jump out of their way, shouting “Watch out mate!” and then you feel ridiculous – because in reality nothing happened.

This sense of presence, the illusory perception that you are in the virtual place and that the events happening there are really happening, is what distinguishes virtual reality from every other type of media. If you have these sensations, then you are likely to act as if you are there.

This is incredibly useful for many applications beyond entertainment: training, rehearsal, education, social simulations, navigation, and many types of psychological and medical rehabilitation (Digital Catapult previously blogged about the versatility of VR here). In principle, anything you can do in reality can be experienced and rehearsed in virtual reality.

However, one of the most powerful aspects of virtual reality is that you can go beyond reality and have experiences that are otherwise impossible.

One thing Virtual Bodyworks has concentrated on in recent years is to change not just where you are but who you are. When you look down towards yourself or in a virtual reflecting surface, the virtual reality can be programmed so you see a virtual body instead of your own.

Just like you have the illusion of being in a different place (presence), you can have the illusion that the virtual body is yours. You may also take on some attributes of the virtual body; for example, if you are an adult in the virtual body of a child, you are likely to take on child-like traits. You can therefore experience the (virtual) world from someone else’s point of view.

We have used these ideas in our research to show that powerful changes can be induced in people who have these experiences, even to the extent of decreasing feelings like racism or understanding the consequences of your own actions towards others.

At some point our research took us to applications that we thought were socially useful, but could not further in a university research environment. Therefore we formed the company Virtual Bodyworks in order to develop and exploit our findings. The company motto is “Let your virtual body work for you”, reflecting our research findings that what your virtual body learns, you actually learn too – and the virtual body has done all the work.


Mel Slater, Maria V. Sanchez-Vives and Bernhard Spanlang are the Co-founders of Virtual Bodyworks. For more virtual reality news, make sure you follow us on Twitter @DigiCatapult.

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Professor Mel Slater is a Co-founder of Virtual Bodyworks