Virtual Reality Pioneer Looks Beyond Entertainment

Photo: Stanford University

Anyone who wants to learn how to use virtual reality to hack the human brain usually ends up visiting Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University

Bailenson has received visits from heads of state, the U.S. military and NASA during a career that spans almost two decades. But Bailenson recently observed that his VR lab’s technological capabilities are rapidly becoming obsolete as leading technology companies such as Oculus VR, Samsung, Google, Valve, Sony and Microsoft compete to develop virtual reality headsets that can entertain the masses.

The growing number of companies crowding into the virtual reality business doesn’t bother Bailenson. On the contrary, he’s thrilled by the recent surge of VR technological innovation that has allowed his lab to now replace its older $40,000 headset with a $350 Oculus Rift DK2 headset. That’s because he focuses on how to create VR experiences that have enough of a psychological impact to transform education, medicine, job training and even empathy training. Bailenson recently spoke about his lab’s work and gave hands-on demonstrations of VR experiences at the Tribeca Film Festival held in New York City last week.

“My lab is very quickly becoming, from a hardware standpoint, not as special as it was,” Bailenson said. “What we do have is content that has evolved over 20 years. These are the kind of the tricks of the trade of the content that will keep us special.”

The Stanford lab has learned much about the immersive power of virtual reality. In 2001, Bailenson brought his lab’s VR setup to a conference attended by 600 judges and lawyers at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington D.C. An elderly federal judge wore a VR helmet to experience a simulation of walking on a rigid plank over a 10-meter-deep pit. When the judge got halfway across the virtual pit and lost his balance, he dove at a 45 degree angle in the real world to try to catch the edge of a virtual platform. Bailenson reacted quickly by diving and knocking the judge away so that he wouldn’t hit his head on the edge of a real table nearby.

Bailenson and his colleagues found that just one third of VR users will even try to walk across the plank over the virtual pit. Even fewer will take the option of stepping off the plank into the virtual void. During my hands-on demo, I succeeded in stepping off the plank and “falling” to my virtual death, which led to me temporarily losing my balance in real life as my brain tried to adjust to the perceived experience of falling. Such an experience illustrated the immersive power of virtual reality that comes from tracking of your body’s movement and synchronizing it with your movement in a virtual world.

“You see those graphics?” Bailenson said. “They’re OK, they’re not better than a video game. What makes it so hard to walk off that plank is that we’re very frequently, very quickly and very accurately tracking your body’s movement through the space.”

​Bailenson’s lab has also learned to use virtual reality to exploit the psychological illusion of “body transfer.” In 2003, the Stanford group worked with Cisco to develop an empathy training simulation that put VR users in the bodies of different people to teach them about sexism and racism. Since that time, researchers have also examined how similar VR experiments can allow people to experience ageism and discrimination against the handicapped. More recently, they have worked on VR simulations that can build empathy between police and citizens by putting them in each others’ shoes.

The Stanford lab has even created the virtual experience of becoming animals, such as cows or sharks, to see how such experiences impact people’s real-life behaviors in terms of eating meat or being more environmentally conscious.

Raising awareness about environmental conservation and the impacts of climate change has been a particular passion project for Bailenson. One of his group’s studies showed how people who experienced a VR simulation of actively cutting down a tree used less paper to clean up a real-life mess than people who just watched a tree get cut down. The lab has also created an educational VR experience to show people the impact of ocean acidification on a real-life coral reef.

Even Stanford’s football team has benefited from the lab’s experiments. In 2014, Bailenson and a former student named Derek Belch developed a VR football simulation that allowed the team’s quarterbacks to practice calling plays in response to the opposing team’s formations. The results showed that quarterbacks learned faster with the VR simulation and shaved a second off their reaction times. It also gave backup quarterbacks the precious opportunity to practice without being limited by the amount of time physically spent on the field. The Stanford researchers formed a spinoff startup, called STRIVR Labs, Inc., and have already sold the trainer to several college teams.

In 2014, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, visited Bailenson’s lab just several weeks before Facebook bought the virtual reality company Oculus VR for $2.3 billion. Since that time, Oculus VR has been developing a mass-market VR headset and has even begun developing VR storytelling entertainment through its Oculus Story Studio group. But Zuckerberg likely has his sights set on the longer-term future when everyone might spend as much time in virtual reality as they currently do using Facebook and other social media. (Bailenson previously wrote about that possible future for an IEEE Spectrum special report in 2011.)

Other tech giants have piled into the race to put VR headsets in everyone’s living rooms. In the process, they’re making many of the same mistakes that Bailenson’s lab has made during the past two decades. But the tech companies are also learning very quickly because of the sheer amount of resources and engineering talent being thrown into making virtual reality a viable experience for the masses. 

“I’ve seen more technological change in the last eight months than I have in [the last] 19 years combined,” Bailenson said.

Bailenson expects to see a slew of new commercial VR headsets go on sale this coming holiday season. But in many ways, people are still figuring out what works as the best virtual reality content. For his part, Bailenson sees virtual reality as something that should be experienced in small doses, in part because of its ability to deliver intense experiences on demand.

“I’m a huge fan of going outside, spending time face to face with people,” Bailenson said. “I believe VR should be used only when necessary for experiences that literally do things you couldn’t do in the physical world.”

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