April 21, 2010

Hey, is that avatar lying to me?

Posted: 11:34 AM ET

Consider this scenario, which a researcher at Stanford's Virtual-Human Interaction Lab proposed to me this week:

You're a college student. You have a class in a big lecture hall. And, 90 percent of the time, your professor looks right at you - gazes straight into your eyes.

How would you feel? Engaged? Creeped out? Like you had to pay attention because you weren't just part of the masses anymore?

Then, what if you also knew that the professor wasn't just looking at you -  that, because you're in virtual reality, your avatar professor can look at every student at the same time?

Would you care that this spider-eye capability means your professor's attention towards you isn't truly genuine?

Maybe not, says Kathryn Segovia, lab manager at this futuristic research office.

"If you're in a one-on-one context, it's harder to fade into the crowd," she said.

This scenario underscores what Segovia says is a big debate in virtual-reality research: Is it OK for avatars (digital representations of people) to be deceptive?

Consider some more examples.

On a tour of her cramped lab at Stanford on Monday, Segovia showed me a face-recognition program that turns you into someone else in the digital world.

I'm a white guy, but with a few clicks, a 3-D version of my face became a white woman, and then a black man.

And it's easy to take virtual-reality deception further than gender and race.

Segovia also demoed a feature that put the virtual version of me on auto-pilot, based on my past movements. So, say I was in a virtual meeting and wanted a cup of coffee. The digital me could act as a moving, note-taking placeholder while I went away.

But tying avatars to our real-world movement may make them less deceptive.

Will Steptoe at University College London conducted a study that showed avatars with human-like eye movements - which were tied to a real person's eye movements with eye-tracking technology - were easier to catch in a lie.

Those with stationary, mannequin eyes could lie to people more easily.

(Check out this New Scientist video on the subject).

But there's still plenty of room for deception.

"It's very hard to tell when someone is portraying a genuine version of themselves [in a virtual world]," Segovia said.

The question is: Does that matter? Is it OK, or even powerful, to become another person online? Or is all this mask-wearing bad for us in the long run?

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Filed under: avatars • Stanford University • virtual reality

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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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