What happens when you can be anything or anyone you want to be? What happens when you can filter the behavioral queues that other people see? I attended Jeremy Bailenson's talk on "Transformed Social Interaction in Immersive Virtual Reality" at Northwestern's Technology and Social Behavior speaker series today because I thought it sounded interesting. It was.
Bailenson runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, where they are looking at these questions in immersive VR environments. These environments allow the computer to mimic your behavior: facial expression, head movement, body movement, even a handshake simulator. While most people think of creating exact virtual replicas of human movement, the tools are not limited to this. One's avatar could be made to smile when you frown or smile at Jack and frown at Sherry. In a virtual classroom, the instructor could appear to be looking directly at each of the students (from the student's perspective). Image can be morphed and merged with other images, so that a face looks more like the face of the observer. The avatar can appear more attractive or taller. There are many, many options.
While the technology was cool, Bailenson is much more interested in how people interact when mediated by the technology. How do people pay attention? How do they perform in negotiations or persuasive argument? The research shows consistently that the "other party" changes their response.
- When an avatar looks at you while speaking, you are more likely to pay attention. You're also more likely to be persuaded to her argument (augmented gaze).
- When an avatar mimics your movements, you are more likely to be persuaded to their arguments (digital chameleons).
- When a face image looks more like you (the image is morphed to contain elements of your face), you are more likely to vote for that person. They did a study during the 2004 US presidential campaign that showed people's votes changed based on altered images of Bush and Kerry.
Further research along these lines is hoping to look at complete transformations, where the avatar has impossible characteristics in the real world (four arms, one growing out of the knee). Or when the VR provides capabilities that are impossible, like seeing the world from someone else's perspective, or getting visual queues about participants behaviors (color changes when they cross their arms; fade-out if you haven't "looked" at them recently), or an invisible consultant that can look at participants from additional angles to provide you with more information.
On the other side of the coin, what happens to the behavior of the person projecting a transformed identity? Do they take on the characteristics of the avatar they project? (This is the Proteus Effect.)
- People with avatars that are taller than their partner tend to driver a harder bargain. Conversely, when they are shorter, they tend to accept poorer deals.
- People who see their avatar as highly attractive stand one meter closer than those whose avatar is unattractive.