Mel Slater: becoming a better person through VR embodiment

Marco Gillies
May 13, 2020 · 6 min read

On Monday, Mel Slater, VR pioneer (and my former boss), gave a public talk as part of the Frontiers in Virtual Reality lecture series co-organised by my colleague Xueni ‘Sylvia’ Pan.

Though I’m very familiar with Mel’s work, every time I hear him speak he brings some new insights, and I thought I would share them (though do watch the talk as well, it contains important insights for all VR creators).


The talk was about embodiment in Virtual Reality, something we have talked about in our MOOC. This is the ability to inhabit another body while in VR.

While many VR experiences don’t show more than hands it is possible to set them up so that you see yourself as having a graphical body (including seeing your new self in a mirror, a powerful part of the illusion). Because VR systems track your hands and head, the hands and head of your virtual body move with you. This correspondence between your own physical movements and the movements you see on your virtual body (called visuomotor congruence) gives you the sensation that this really is your body.

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A participant of Mel’s embodying a different body

This sense of being embodied in a different body from your own can be one of the most powerful experiences in Virtual Reality. As Mel says:

This is a temporary transformation. You experience being some one else for as long as you are in VR, but Mel’s talk also suggested that this experience of being some one else could result in longer term changes and transformation. By experiencing the world as some one else you could become a better person (or, if done badly, a worse one).

He illustrated this with three experiments:

  1. Embodying white people in black bodies reduced implicit racism
  2. Embodying men in the body of a female victim of sexual harassment resulted in a reduced tendency to harm women
  3. Embodying yourself in Sigmund Freud allows you to have a conversation with yourself that helps you address mental health issues.

These are all powerful experiences and Mel has shown that they can have at least medium term effects. What I want to do here is discuss some of the fine details that are revealing, particularly as they show the cases where this doesn’t work as we might want.

Emotion and embodiment

Mel and colleagues have conducted experiments that show that embodying white people in black bodies can result in them having lower scores for implicit racism, even a week later. This is a great result, but it conflicts with other studies, including one by Jeremy Bailenson and team, which failed to show an decrease and in fact showed some increase in implicit racism.

Mel and team have investigated why these differences might happen. Bailenson’s study involved a stressful situation (a job interview) while Mel’s one was emotionally neutral. Mel’s idea was that the emotional tone of a situation can change how we respond to this type of embodiment.

His team did a follow up experiment where white participants were again embodied in a black avatar. This time they were on a street surrounded by passers by. These passers by were either neutral (ignored the participant), positive (smiled at them) or negative (actively avoided them). They found that the neutral condition had similar effects as before and the positive one had stronger effects, but the negative one resulted in increased racism. The theory is that bad treatment of a black avatar both increases the idea of prejudice and also distances the white participant from their black avatar.

Mel points out that this is a very important result for VR creators because it impacts the idea of “the empathy machine”, that has become very popular particularly through the work of Chris Milk and his TED talk (above). This idea is that we can gain empathy for people very different from us if we are able to “step into their shoes” via VR.

Mel’s result shows that this very much depends on the situation.

A typical “empathy machine” experience might put you in a situation that exemplifies an oppressed group of people. The experience itself would focus on the oppression and the negative aspects of their situation and the idea is that you would have more empathy for them and be more likely to help them.

But the study that Mel describes suggests the opposite. That putting people in a negative, oppressive situation reinforces the identity of these other people as victims and different from us. If we want to increase empathy, we should actually choose more neutral or positive situations that make us feel closer and more similar to other people. (To be fair to Chris Milk, I think that this is what he did in his classic early work, Clouds Over Sidra, by focusing on the small details of ordinary life in a refugee camp, and showing the fun that kids could have amid the hardship).

Body Swapping

The other experiments that Mel described were about the perspective from which you experienced something, and in particular how perspective swapping can have interesting effects.

The first was about sexual harassment. Male participants were embodied as one of a group of men in an outdoor bar (image below). The men initially chat normally, but then they start harassing a woman at the next table.

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The sexual harassment scenario

The first part of the experiment is to just experience the situation from a single viewpoint, but after the end of the scenario, the participant views it again from a different perspective.

They either viewed the entire scenario, including their own actions, from the point of view of another of the men, from a neutral position or from the point of view of the woman.

A week later Mel and colleagues ran the same participants through a virtual version of Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiement. They were instructed to give electric shocks to a virtual woman (no one was really harmed).

Those who had reviewed the original bar scene from the woman’s point of view were much less likely to continue to the end of the experiment and give the most extreme shocks, but those who had reviewed it from the point of view of another man were more likely to give extreme shocks than those who had a neutral view point.

This shows that VR has the potential to address serious issues like sexual harassment, but also that it could make it worse if we do it wrong.

Council yourself

The final experiment also used this body swapping paradigm, but in a different way. Participants were given a therapy session with a virtual version of Sigmund Freud. The trick was that every so often they swapped position and embodied Freud looking at themselves. While they were Freud they could ask questions of themselves, thus conducting a self-therapy session, which helped participants a lot more than just having pre-scripted questions from a Freud that they never inhabited.

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Talking to virtual Freud

As some one who has has mental health issues throughout my life I can really appreciate that being able to step outside yourself and ask yourself dispassionate questions could really help know yourself better and address mental health issues.

The power and pitfalls of embodiment

I would really encourage everyone interested in VR, and particularly VR creators to watch Mel’s talk. It is very insightful and shows how important embodiment, and particularly body swapping, can be. After viewing his talk I really feel that it has the potential to make us better people, but, more than I realized before, it also has the potential to go badly wrong if we don’t do it right, so we have to be careful and aware of what we are doing.

This is part of a blog I have started to support learners on our Virtual Reality MOOC, if you want to learn more about VR, that is a good place to start. If you want to go into more depth, you might be interested in our Masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality at Goldsmiths’ University of London.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera…

Marco Gillies

Written by

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

Marco Gillies

Written by

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

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