Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab
By Casey Hawkins

Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab creates virtual reality (VR) simulations to test scenarios of human behavior and to further develop the understanding of human psychology. The lab’s diverse series of projects place it among the most thorough and advanced VR educational institutions in the world. Below is an overview of a few active projects which are currently underway at the lab, and you can learn more for yourself by visiting the lab’s official website.

Empathy at Scale

This project is designed to test and strengthen one’s capacity for empathetic interaction by allowing the subject to see him or herself through the eyes of another person, as well as other participants in a given social situation. The project currently has over 1,000 test subjects who are each provided with multiple learning scenarios such as prejudice, bullying and classroom learning. After a period of six months, the study hopes to provide insight into how continual VR exposure affects a person’s psychology.

Examining Racism With Virtual Reality

This project is similar in tone to Empathy at Scale, where subjects look through the eyes of a person who is subjected to racism in various forms. This study is more in depth at underlying physiological factors than it appears, which also play into situations like heart rate variability and changes in blood pressure. It also stimulates psychological processes like racial bias and making decisions.

Sustainable Behaviors

Sustainable Behaviors is split into two different projects which both seek to teach people firsthand how environmentally harmful behavior affects ocean ecosystems. Its goal is to serve as an educational tool for the public to demonstrate that these bad habits are indeed affecting innocent creatures. By also showing people the physical realms in which these creatures reside, it hopes to stymie people’s tendencies to be environmentally harmful without being aware.

The first project is called Ocean Acidification, which centers around the process of acidification, or how the ocean soaks up leftover carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The simulation places subjects right in the middle of this process. It does so, initially, as a physical CO2 molecule that releases into the atmosphere and is subsequently absorbed by the ocean, and then in the center of an ecosystem. This is affected over time by acidification.

The second project is titled Fish Avatars, and it uses real movement data from electronically tagged fish to simulate fish avatars, which are closely representative of the real species. The aim is to determine the psychological differences between seeing a “real” fish moving around in its habitat versus a recorded or simulated agent. Previous research has found that these avatars are helpful in stimulation learning, and in increasing capacity in order to sympathize with these creatures and their living environments.

Casey Hawkins is a senior religious studies major at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.