Dyadic Relationships in Virtual Reality

In sociology, dyads are pairings of individuals who have titles that position one member in relation to the other. There are familial dyads, such as parent/child or ex-wife/ex-husband, but this article is more concerned with our societal dyads, like: teacher/student, lawyer/client, boss/employee, and — most importantly — doctor/patient. As virtual reality seeks to integrate with and further convenience our day-to-day interactions, we might expect VR (in cooperation with AI) to supplant the occupational half of the preceding societal dyads. With this in mind, discourse analysts are, or will be, lining up to observe interactions between dyads within a virtual space. The goal is to measure these virtual exchanges in relation to the same meetings in the material world, usually an office, so we might see if any important content of these conversations is lost in virtual exchanges and we might find methods of correcting for those losses.

Generally, I would be sharing work from researchers of various labs worldwide, but instead I’m including an abstract of my own few-month-old research into the doctor/patient dyad alongside images of the virtual space being described. It’s meant to be a glimpse into the work being done in this field in the interest of making VR a communication tool incorporable into official, everyday interaction.

The Abstract

Title: The Positioning and Role Assignment of Patients During a Medical Interview in Virtual Reality

Discourse between doctors and patients has long been studied due to its intrinsic power asymmetry and the importance of compliance gaining to the process, but, modernly, virtual reality is encroaching on this field, which could traditionally only be done in person. In light of these technological advancements, it becomes vital to understand how patients position themselves regarding their virtual healthcare providers as to ensure the quality of medical care is maintained. This study seeks to begin this work by analyzing the responses to questions typical of a medical checkup, looking specifically at evidence of role assignment and characterization of a virtual doctor and themselves. To accomplish this, the author created an avatar and virtual environment representative of a doctor and their office, where health-related questions would be administered.

VR Doctor’s Office (by Lance G Powell Jr)

Before entering virtual reality, the participants are told they will communicate with an avatar in a virtual environment, but they must rely solely on visual cues and indicators from the avatar’s speech to interpret the scenario as being a medical checkup and, thus, recognize the avatar as filling the role of doctor. The resulting dialogue shows clearly that all participants could use those cues to successfully interpret the scenario as being a medical checkup. During the interview, the majority revealed a pressing problem related either to emotional troubles, stress, sleeping difficulty, weight gain, or dietary restrictions. In some cases, the information on negative aspects of their present state is given without being specifically requested. This is evidence that the doctor avatar is identified as being someone with whom they could share their problems. There are also instances of qualifying answers for improved medical utilization; for instance, when asked about their family’s medical history, one mentions he is not aware of disease in the family while another says there are no genetically relevant cases to speak of.

As exhibited in previous studies, people recognize it is inappropriate to assign consciousness or attributes of human agency to computers (Nass, Steuer, Tauber, 1994). However, participants of this study show further evidence of unconsciously attributing sentience to the avatar through body language, one participant pressing their finger to their head while thinking of an idiom, one holding a hand to their throat to describe asthma, and another reaching for their belly to illustrate their weight gain. Likewise, computers often use familiar interpersonal cues and there is evidence to suggest users are absently following that script in the interest of first-order politeness (Nass, Moon, Carney, 1999). This adherence to a script is also evidenced here, most strongly following the avatar’s leave taking, when all seven participants verbally acknowledge the leave taking and six give a reciprocal and socially preferred response. In summation, this research shows overall potential for utilizing VR in medical interviews and seems to support its development.

Nass, Steuer, & Tauber (1994). Computers are social actors. SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 72–78). ACM.

Nass, Moon, & Carney (1999). Are People Polite to Computers? 1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(5), 1093–1109.

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