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April 20, 2010

Real fear in a virtual world

Posted: 09:41 AM ET

So, I walked up to a virtual pit.

It was maybe 30 feet deep. With a wood plank crossing it.

Somewhere deep down in my rational brain, I knew the hole wasn't real - that it was a virtual reality scenario in a cramped office at Stanford University, where the floor seemed completely pit-free until I put on a clunky piece of hardware called a "headmount."

But that headmount changed everything.

Using a system of cameras, ultraviolet lights and an "inertia cube," the headmount - which looks sort of like a cross between sunglasses and a hard hat - knew right where I was and where I was looking. It fed that info to a computer, which put a realistic virtual display in front of my eyes.

The result looked like a video game version of the room I had just been standing in.

Only with a big - and really believable - hole in the center.

Kathryn Segovia, a PhD student and manager of the Virtual-Human Interaction Lab here, asked me to walk towards the pit and then cross it on the plank.

My pulse quickened. I felt the kind of nerves you do before a big drop on a roller coaster, or that tingle in your stomach you get when walking on the roof of a building.

Segovia says people have real, emotional reactions to virtual reality. Some become ill. Others fall. And, increasingly, it's becoming apparent that virtual experiences can impact who we are out here in real life. Researchers in her lab, for instance, have shown that people who watch themselves exercise in virtual reality are more likely to do so in real life, she said. And those who watch lifelike avatars eat healthy virtual foods are more likely to make healthy eating choices later.

This leads to all kinds of possible scenarios, where virtual environments could be used to help with a person's fear of heights, or help someone with an eating disorder. The real world informs how we design virtual reality, and how we act in virtual realms, she says, but the virtual can also change the real.

And it seems the two are becoming less distinct.

Back in front of the gaping hole, I walked across the plank without much problem. But I was surprised by how real it felt, how I used my arms to steady my balance and actually worried a bit about falling.

Then things got even weirder.

In round two of this virtual gut-check, Segovia put other "virtual humans" in the scenario with me - a bunch of concerned-looking men in blue shirts.

As they entered through a virtual door, I felt their eyes on me. I started to wave "hello" to them (yeah, I'm that lame), but, much to my real dismay, they started running. Then, one by one, just like lemmings, they jumped into the pit - to their virtual deaths.

I actually wanted to try to stop them. But it happened so fast.

Segovia, who was controlling this scenario from the outside, and seemed much less concerned about these pixel people than me, asked me to walk out on the plank and look down at the digital wreckage.

I steadied myself and walked to the center of the plank, over the virtual hole. I saw a tangle of those "agents," as researchers call computer-controlled virtual people, at the bottom of the pit - splayed out like virtual stew.

There was no gore to it, but it was actually disturbing. I wanted to get away, so I scurried off the plank.

So fast, in fact, that Segovia had to put out a hand to stop me.

I was about to run into a real wall.

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Filed under: CNN Labs • emerging tech • Stanford University • virtual reality

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Moe Smith   April 20th, 2010 10:01 am ET

as a certified adrenaline junky, this kind of thing would make me even more impulsive.


sanud002   April 20th, 2010 1:48 pm ET

Virtual reality has always held a ton of promise for real life applications because our brains are so easily swayed into believing the images and situations that our eyes see. Clearly this participant had strong emotional and physical reactions to her virtual reality! I recently saw a video of how military scientists are using virtual reality much in the same way but for a very nobel cause. They are putting soldiers who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in virtual situations that replicate the real life situations from which their PTSD stemmed to help them face the problems they encountered from that specific occurrence. The treatment seems to be working extremely well! I'll post a link to a video if you would like to see more for yourself. It is pretty ground breaking material!

Bones   April 20th, 2010 6:57 pm ET

Since the whole article talked about the virtual about showing a picture of it?

Bricktop   April 20th, 2010 11:40 pm ET

This is why we dream.So we don't have to put on a headmount to zap us into a virtual world.So,then we could "act" as if we are dreaming to the point we don't know if we are in a "dream state" or "awake",which makes the possibility of dying in while in a virtual world and not from a gunshot or stabbing or fall ,but from some damn "head gear mindf%$!#@ us to we "86" ourself.Hmmmmm! I didn't buy it with the movie "The Lawnmower Man" and I am not buyin' the tech now.Though it might replace the emptiness in alot of peoples lives.So I give it 2 thumbs to the side for "get it aaaahtuhhhh here".

Zack   April 21st, 2010 12:55 am ET

This technology isn't going to be part of your home video game any time soon, but it does offer a considerable training capability. Just imagine, training people to drive using would save countless lives and accidents. Better yet, how about a VR world, where telecommuting is the norm, and gas stations start closing up for lack of business.

Real Fear in a Virtual World: Stanford Lab’s Virtual Pit | Blog - Situated Research   April 21st, 2010 11:16 am ET

[...] by: John D. Sutter, CNN Posted by: Situated Research Email / Share / Print This [...]

T   April 22nd, 2010 9:55 am ET

That is at once very cool and very disturbing. I wonder if this will ever be mass produced. You could make a whole lot of money from selling this to the general public...

I still think it's creepy, though.

Robert   April 22nd, 2010 3:27 pm ET

Most people are unaware that reality is really a figment of our imagination. Really, it is.
All we know is real, is so because of our perception of it. And our perception is ALWAYS filtered by our brains. For example, you really don't "see" the outside world. The light never reaches your brain, which is the final interpreter. Light hits photo receptors in your eyes, which convert that information into electro-chemical information, which travel to your brains, are then interpreted and compared against past experience, cultural reference, etc., then your brain rebuilds everything the best it can to fit its needs. Which is why many people can look at the same scene, and most probably they will all remember different things about it. Same goes for other senses.
That's how hallucinations work. You can see, hear and feel things that aren't there because, in the end, your brain has the last word on what you see, hear and feel. If there is something so wrong with your brain that it starts pulling up sensations out of the blue, what's to tell you it's not real?

Funny, I've always wondered: Chances are, if you're reading this, you probably know your colors. We all agree that a color has a certain name, for example this text is black, and the "submit comment" button is red with white text. But, how do we know that what I call red is experienced the exact same way for me as for you? What if, what I call red, you experience it as what I would call blue– but since that's how you've always seen it since birth, and school taught you that "that is red", you also call it red?

Darian   April 22nd, 2010 6:58 pm ET

Good insight, Robert

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I dont think I'll waste money on a 3-D TV, I'll wait for the virtual reality version...

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