Jeremy Bailenson

Today I was very lucky to meet and attend a talk about Jeremy Bailenson at University College London.

Jeremy is a professor at Stanford University and is one of the world’s leading researchers in Virtual Reality. He has done many, many ground breaking experiments which have informed what we taught in our MOOC, as well as many other things.

He has recently released a book, Experience of Demand, that explains his research in an accessible way. I really recommend that anyone interested in VR reads the book and I will post a longer review of it after, but for now I’d like to talk about some of the themes that came up in the talk (and over lunch!).

Risks of VR

Jeremy is one of the worlds biggest proponents of VR and has written extensively about the benefits it an bring to people and society, but in the talk he also urged caution and wanted to highlight many of the risk or concern of VR. We, as VR professionals, believe that, and frequently say that VR is far more powerful than any other medium. That it allows us to learn in new ways, can create empathy and can help us overcome serious mental health problems, but, if we believe it is such a power for good, we also have to admit that the negative effects of VR could be much stronger than any previous media. This is something that I have written about before and I was please, talking to Jeremy, that we agreed on so much.

In his talk (and book) he listed a number of areas to be concerned about:

  • Distraction In the US 9 people each day are killed each day by some one who is texting or otherwise using their phone. While it sounds unlikely that people will drive while in VR, people do have accidents while playing Augmented Reality games and there are plenty of risks of being injured because you are not aware of the outside world.
  • Addiction there is currently no data on this, but it is something to think about. Because VR feels so real there are many addictive experiences, like gambling which could be much more powerful than they would be on a web page.
  • Reality Blurring Researchers who have investigated spending long periods in VR have found that people can find it hard to distinguish between real and virtual.
  • Simulator Sickness VR can cause nausea, this is something we know well and one of many reasons that we should avoid spending long periods in VR.
  • Media Modelling One major concern is violent VR. Jeremy’s point wasn’t that playing violent First Person Shooter games might make people violent (though it might, we don’t know), but that, because VR is such a great medium for learning things, some one who did want to shoot people in real life, could learn to be very good at it in VR. Jeremy has worked with the military to use VR to train soldiers to fight better, so he knows that it works. He has recently written an article about the risks of violent VR and how to make fun shooter games that won’t teach people to be better murderers.
  • Kids are unique Very little is known about the effect of VR on children, but it is likely that, since children are still developing, VR could have an even more profound effect than on adults. He has published, in the last few weeks, a report for Common Sence Media about kids and VR, which will be interesting reading for me both as a VR researcher and a parent (of kids who like VR).

Now is the time to do it for VR

None of this means we shouldn’t do VR. Both Jeremy and I are massive fans of VR and we really believe in its potential. It shouldn’t even mean that we can’t make first person shooter games in VR (they are fun), it use means that we should think carefully about it.

Jeremy put it nicely. He often talks to (very) senior people in social media and phone companies. He often asks them: “If you could have done something 7 years ago to prevent the negative effects of your technology, what would it be? Now is the time to do that thing for VR?”

What are we supposed to do?

Jeremy told the story of showing his grandfather VR. He was impressed but then said “What am I supposed to do?”.

This wasn’t a criticism, just an honest question, and in a sense it was the question that drove the talk today. What should we do with VR?

Jeremy was clear that we shouldn’t do everything in VR. It gets uncomfortable after a while and we can’t spend too much time. Checking email would be a really bad use of VR (I have too much in the real world anyway).

He suggested that there 4 really strong reasons for doing something in VR:

  • It’s impossible
  • It’s counterproductive
  • It’s expensive/rare
  • It’s dangerous

Impossible

Becoming homeless

One example of something that is impossible, is body transfer. In VR you can inhabit and body that is different from your own. You can be a different race, gender, age or even species. This is a massive topic (and a big one for the MOOC, where we call it embodiment). I will probably do a longer post about it later, but I’ll describe one interesting example.

Inhabiting another body can lead to new forms of empathy (though Jeremy is cautious of the claims that VR is an empathy machine). He gave several examples. One is empathy for homeless people. The Stanford team have released a VR experience called “Becoming Homeless”, which places you in the position of a man who gradual slides into unemployment and then homelessness. The experience is available on steam and has been exhibited in many festivals, museums and other spaces. They gathered data in all of these places making it one of the largest VR research studies ever. They aimed to understand how the power of VR to generate empathy extends outside the small lab experiments we have typically done.

The short story is that the effect is not as strong as a lab study with university students, and the results are more variable, but VR is still better than alternatives and the results persist 8 weeks later.

Counterproductive

Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience

These are experiences that teach you a powerful lesson but that you wouldn’t want to do in real life.

One example is the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. Directly experiencing a natural disaster can radically change people’s views on these issues, but we wouldn’t want everyone to have to experience a disaster, and we wouldn’t want lot of people to experience a damaged coral reef because it would cause more damage.

The Stanford team have created another experience called the “Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience”, which is also on steam and which allows you to experience the effects of CO2 on coral reefs (a little know effect called Ocean Acidification).

Rare or Expensive

One of the real benefits of VR for education or training is that it can allow us to practice things that would be very expensive to practice in real life, or which occurs to rarely. It’s often situations where it is risky either physically or financially to have people train in real life. Medical training, like Sylvia’s work, is an example, but Jeremy gave others.

One is American Football. An ignorant Brit like me might think that it is just a game involving physical skill, but it is very tactical. Quarterbacks have to make major decisions about plays in only 4–5 seconds. Practicing these decisions typically involves a whole team in a real game situation, which can risk exhausting or injuring players. VR training can train decision making without the risks and without needing the whole team to be on hand. Stanford’s football team credit VR training for a string of unexpected victories.

A more prosaic example is Walmart, the worlds largest company, which is now using VR to train employees in what might be the largest application of VR yet.

Dangerous

If VR is important for training when doing something in the real world is expensive, it is even more important when it is dangerous. Flight simulators, firefighters and the military are all examples.

But Jeremy also pointed out that the most dangerous thing we all do on a daily basis is driving, or travelling more generally. We are so used to it that we forget that travel is the biggest non-medical cause of untimely death. It also takes a lot of time and pollutes the environment. One of the most powerful potentials of VR is that we can replace travel with virtual meetings that are as compelling and real as a face to face meeting. Why did Jeremy have to fly from California to London just to see us? Surely our mission is to make sure that next time we an do it virtually. This is something we’ve been thinking a lot about both at Goldsmiths and UCL, and it was great to hear Jeremy say it.

Can you, should you, would you?

VR is an incredibly powerful medium. Jeremy describes it as leveraging a paradox: the brain treats a VR as if it is real, but there are no rules: turn off physics, travels in time, add an extra limb. The brain uses its existing templates to interpret these unreal environments, so we can respond to them as if they were real.

This is very powerful, it can enable so much but there are also serious risks, we need to think carefully about what we should and shouldn’t do.

Jeremy summed it up saying

“VR is superb for things that can’t do in the real world, but its not great for things that you wouldn’t do”