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Real or imagined? How content creators can understand the impact of virtual reality on our psyche

The ability of VR to give us presence in a virtual context opens up a world of opportunities for brands and content creators, but what does it mean for our minds?

The immersive promise of VR combined with its projected scale over the next generation creates a potent proposition that’s unlike anything that’s gone before. But aside from its impact on the worlds of entertainment, education, culture and commerce, its potential effect on our psychologies is equally intriguing.

The sense of being present in an artificial world has its own implications for our inner worlds. If we are highly immersed in a virtual world, what impact could it have on our psyche? Could virtual worlds create psychological change within us? And how can virtual worlds enhance our brains’ capabilities for empathy?

Though VR is still in its infancy, particularly when it comes to understanding its impact on our brains, studies have revealed evidence of its ability to address phobias and treat victims of traumatic experiences, through the immersion of the individual within an environment that creates fear or invokes unpleasant memories.

“The beauty of VR for psychological change is that people know the environments are not real, which gives them the confidence to try out new approaches,” says Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford, who recently spearheaded a study that found VR can be used to reduce paranoid fears.

“But our minds and bodies react as if it is real so we make true learning that transfers to the real world,” he adds. “So there is already evidence that, for example, using virtual heights in treatment is as good as using real heights, but people prefer using the virtual heights first.”

In another recent application of VR in neuroscience, researchers are attempting to enable participants to experience more positive emotions towards themselves by identifying with avatars within a virtual scene. The potential applications are limitless, according to study lead Chris Brewin.

“People can ‘experiment’ with alternatives that might initially seem very frightening but can be used in a very gradual way with VR to help them get used to what it might be like. This might affect people who have eating disorders and distorted beliefs about their own body, or people with disabilities who are finding it difficult to come to terms with the loss of a limb, for example,” he says.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says the way the brain decodes VR is so convincing that VR experiences should always be treated as if they would have an impact similar to that of the real experience.

“We react to virtual stimuli and are changed by virtual experiences as we would be if they had happened in real life,” he says. “Some of the scientific results include measuring physiological data (like heart rate and skin conductance) and monitoring behavioural and non-verbal response to virtual stimuli.”

The ultimate empathy machine?

Studies have found that the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is inherently bound into the ability to empathise. And as our brains are malleable, our tendencies towards empathy can be trained. In theory, this means that VR experiences that enable us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes could help to reinforce the neural networks that promote empathy towards others.

In one study conducted by Stanford, participants who ‘became’ colourblind in VR were more likely to spend more time helping someone with the disability after the study, in comparison to those who simply imagined that they suffered the impairment. In another, people who were made to feel like a superhero in a virtual situation then became more helpful in a real-life situation.

“These results show that an immersive experience, where you actually feel as though you are in the body of someone else, or feel as if you’ve taken on a new ability, can especially impact your thoughts and behaviours in the real world,” says Bailenson. “Limitations of experiences like these may arise as a result of differences between individuals and their feelings of presence in the virtual environment. However, as technology evolves, the simulations will only become more convincing.”

A collaborative project by Visualise and production company Sublime & Ridiculous is one such example of VR being used to create a ‘first-person’ view of an experience. ‘In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself’ (pictured below) transports the user into the mind and body of epilepsy sufferer Jane Gauntlett, showing the lead up to a seizure to enable understanding of the condition and how it feels to be in that position.

Charities have also been quick to realise the potential of VR storytelling for this purpose. A recent VR experience for the National Autistic Society built on the theme of sensory overload, putting the user in the position of a person with autism. “We’ve used every tool at our disposal, from sound design and VFX to set design and stage direction, to create a small moment of what it can be like to be autistic. It’s a very different approach from traditional storytelling,” says Richard Beer, creative director at Don’t Panic, the agency behind the work.

“VR’s core strength is its ability to create a sense of ‘presence’,” Beer adds. “Done well, it can make you forget that you’re even wearing a headset at all. So if you think about empathy as a mountain every storyteller or filmmaker must scale, VR offers us an opportunity to start half way up it.”

An isolator or an enabler?

One of the biggest criticisms levelled at VR is that it removes the individual from their surroundings. Aside from the obvious societal frustrations this could cause – angry parents trying to coax teenagers away from their 360 gaming – what impact does virtual immersion have on our brains?

According to Tim Leberecht, founder of marketing consulting firm Leberecht & Partners, the same sorts of techniques used by researchers in treating phobias and post traumatic stress disorder using VR – where virtual experiences potentially cause an urge to relive them – might give content creators pause for thought.

“VR content creators might want to be conscious of mental patterns that could foment a prolonged sense of disorientation, ultimately leading to an inability to distinguish between the real and virtual world. VR experiences might also aggravate existing negative behaviors or in some cases cause problems with emotional and physical intimacy in the real world.”

Though scenarios such as that outlined in Ernest Cline’s dystopian book Ready Player One – where the VR Metaverse offers continual escapism from real life – remain firmly in the realm of sci-fi for now, for all the potential VR has to increase empathy, could isolating us from our surroundings and our relationships actually cause more harm than good?

“Ready Player One is obviously an extreme case but there are genuine concerns with the predicted future of a consumer VR market – why be in the real world?” asks Henry Stuart, chief executive and co-founder of Visualise.

However, Stuart believes VR will become known as an enabler of social interaction in future. “The fact that we converse in this alternate, virtual world with other people rather than in the real world will cease to matter. In fact, it will allow conversations on levels and experiences beyond those that the real world can.”

There will always be merit in face-to-face communication, according to Bailenson, as VR can’t yet replicate the full sensory experience of human interaction.

“At this point in time, VR can create very convincing visual and auditory simulations that allow you to have real-feeling experiences. However, there are nuanced aspects of face-to-face interaction, like touch and smell, that are not yet being fully replicated in virtual simulations.”

This potential to create extremely convincing experiences also brings the weight of responsibility for brands. “Presence is an incredibly powerful sensation, and it’s unique to VR; there’s no way to create it in any other medium,” says Sol Rogers, chief executive and owner of Rewind, adding that the flipside is that content producers have a duty of care for users.

Leberecht notes that marketers must be mindful of giving users enough cues to process the virtual situation so that they don’t lose their “sense of self”, and adds that there is also an opportunity for brands to take up the mantle for “VR mentoring” in a new, psychologically focused type of customer service that could “build VR literacy and develop emotional and physical resilience”.

This article first ran in The Drum's VR issue, published on 1 June.

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Katie McQuater

As magazine editor at The Drum, I edit the fortnightly print edition of the magazine as well as commissioning and writing features for the publication.

Send feature pitches to katie.mcquater@thedrum.com

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