Possibility of perfect virtual reality

Possibility of perfect virtual reality

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Is it biologically possible to build a "perfect" virtual reality, in which the person in that world cannot distinguish it from the real world? (e.g. as in the movie The Matrix)

From my knowledge (which is very limited), we perceive everything as a result of electrical activity within nerves. If we were able to encode/decode the patterns of the electrical activity and understand how the brain communicates with and intercepts all the nerves between the brain and the other parts of the body, would this mean that a perfect virtual reality is possible?

If you look at the phenomenon of lucid dreaming, where people consciously explore their dreams, you will recognize that perfect virtual reality is possible with the biology that is already in place.

The lucid dreaming related phenomenon called "false awakening" is another piece of evidence for perfect virtual reality. When a lucid dreamer experiences a false awakening, it is indistinguishable from reality. A person wakes up in the same bed. walks through replica rooms. Such person may use restroom, brush teeth, start making breakfast, then wake up in reality. The only two consistent differences between a false awakening and reality would be inability to see consistent time on a digital display and inability to adjust light levels with light switches. The defining characteristic of false awakenings is that they trick the dreamer into thinking the dreamer is interacting with reality.

I should probably mention that expert dreamers, those who keep a dream journal and train to remember dreams, experience their dreams more intensely. As such, it is not uncommon to hear of "hyper-real" dreams, which are more visually and cognitively clear than baseline reality.

Just a few years ago, virtual reality was a sci-fi concept for most of us. Soon enough, we witnessed the release of the first virtual reality headset, which showed us that almost everything’s possible. If a decade ago we were still using the home phone in order to communicate, nowadays we can instantly send messages through the use of smart devices. The virtual reality market is one of the fastest growing markets. If in 2014, the market’s value reached 90 million dollars, by 2018 (in just four years) it’s expected to grow to the impressive number of 5.2 billion dollars. According to some statistics, it is estimated that 171 million people will be using a virtual reality by 2018. Considering all these facts, we can definitely state that virtual reality could be useful to our day-by-day activities. Being a universal technology, it can be applied to almost any type of domain of activity. Of course, some fields could use VR more than others, and education is one of those fields. What about using virtual reality in the classroom?

As new generations are born and raised in a digital era where the technological advancements are quite advanced, they’ll obviously love technology and resist to the traditional learning ways. That’s why the virtual reality technology can bring a plus to the education of the new generations.

During today’s article, we’ll take a look at few of the advantages and disadvantages of using virtual reality in the classroom. It’s important to note that the advantages are more numerous, but we shouldn’t ignore the dis-empowering effects that VR could produce.

6 Advantages Of Using Virtual Reality In The Classroom

1. Provides Outstanding Visualizations That Aren’t Possible In The Traditional Classroom.

Virtual reality is great because it lets us explore different realities and alternate our experiences. By wearing a VR headset, you're encountering high-quality visualizations that can mark you in a positive way. Did you know that pictures can actually help us learn better? Well, check out this resource and find out more.

The traditional teaching methods can never reach such an effective way of emphasizing things through visualizations.

2. Creates Interest.

No matter what age they have, students will always love to sit and watch something instead of reading it. The VR technology is quite interesting, as it can create amazing experiences that could never be “lived” in the real life. Students will definitely feel more motivated to learn with the use of this technology.

3. Increases Students' Engagement.

Nowadays, teachers find it real hard to create a productive engagement within the class. With the virtual reality technology present in the education, this aspect will forever disappear, as most of the students will feel tempted to talk about their experiences within their virtual reality.

4. Doesn’t Feel Like Work.

Let’s face it placing a headset on your head and watching stuff flash before your eyes, learning new information through videos and amazing visualizations, well… it doesn’t look like work. If we can make education fun, kids will love to learn more stuff and be more ambitious.

This is basically a general rule. When we enjoy doing something, we will do it with more interest, we’ll do it better, and we won’t feel like we’re doing something painful.

5. Improves The Quality Of Education In Different Fields.

Take medicine for example. In 2016, innovative doctors are taking advantage of the VR technology in order to explore new aspects of medicine and teach others better. Another example would be the content writing and editing field. Virtual reality can often help at find mistakes in content and provide awesome editing features.

6. Eliminates The Language Barrier.

The language barrier is often a big problem when it comes to education. If you want to study in a different country, you must understand and speak the language. With virtual reality, every possible language can be implemented within the software. Therefore, language will no longer represent a barrier for student’s education plans.

5 Disadvantages Of Using Virtual Reality In The Classroom

1. Deteriorates Human Connections.

While virtual reality can be a great asset for most of the existent fields of activity, it can also be a huge disadvantage. The traditional education is based on personal human communication and interpersonal connections. Virtual reality is quite different it is you and the software, and nothing else.

This can damage the relationships between students and the overall human communication.

2. Lack Of Flexibility.

If in class you can be flexible, ask questions, receive answers, using a virtual reality headset is a different experience. If you’re using specific software which has been programmed to work exactly the same, you won’t be able to do anything else except what you’re supposed to do.

This lack of flexibility can be a disadvantage for most of the students, and that’s because education isn’t a fixed activity. It always fluctuates!

3. Functionality Issues.

Like with any programmed software, things can often go wrong. When things go wrong, you students’ learning activity is over until the tool is fixed. This can be quite expensive and also inconvenient.

So if a student has exams the next day and his virtual reality headset goes boom, he will be unable to study and pass that exam. This was just an example it can happen differently any time.

4. Addiction To The Virtual World.

The possibility of students getting addicted to their virtual world is also big. We’ve seen what video games and strong experiences do to people. We can even take drugs as a good example if what people experience is better than their normal existence, there’s quite a big chance of them becoming addicted.

5. Quite Expensive.

Advanced technology is often expensive. If we wish to expand this virtual reality trend and reach the masses, we have to spend billions of dollars on these features. More than that, the modern education that takes advantage of the virtual reality environment will only be accessed by the rich ones. The poor will not afford it therefore, we will create inequality in education.


As you have probably noticed, the virtual reality environment is consistently evolving. It could bring dozens of benefits to almost any field, but it can also prove to be harmful. Per total, we believe that the modernization of education through the use of virtual reality can be quite a productive accomplishment.

Is Choosing Your Own Reality All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

As rapid improvements in virtual reality technology make it possible to create and live in worlds perfectly tailored to our needs, are humans nearing utopia?

The idea of a VR utopia was introduced to the public consciousness by the movie The Matrix, but in the film, humans were too imperfect to live in such a world and instead were relegated to a more true-to-life virtual reality. But if it were possible, would it be wise to retreat from this imperfect world into a perfect virtual one?

The psychological impacts of being able to create or choose your own reality are poorly understood, but there are already concerns about the addictive nature of computer games, particularly online virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (WoW). Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude notes that those who reported greater fulfillment in virtual scenarios often have underlying psychological conditions.

As VR technology becomes increasingly accessible and virtual worlds become increasingly realistic, people may start to spend less time in the real world. Jim Blascovich, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Who is to say that a virtual life that is better than one’s physical life is a bad thing?” he told The Atlantic.

It’s unclear whether these virtual worlds will be shared like the online games of today or if the ability to customize VR experiences will see users become increasingly disconnected as they each head down their own personal rabbit hole.

But what if instead, VR technology held the potential to turn the real world into utopia? Virtual worlds like those found in Minecraft, Sim City and WoW are already becoming popular for teaching the collaborative systems thinking that will be required to deal with 21st-century challenges like climate change, population growth and pandemics.

VR could put this virtual teaching on steroids by fully immersing students in solving challenges. At New York University, Winslow Burleson leads the NYU-X lab, which is developing an immersive cyber-learning environment dubbed “The Holodeck” in homage to the virtual reality environment featured in the Star Trek series. The machine will incorporate VR, artificial intelligence, robotics and rapid prototyping to recreate immersive virtual environments for teaching or self-guided learning.

He has just received a $2.9M grant from the National Science Foundation to build the first Holodeck. But in an essay published earlier this year Burleson imagines a future world where a global network of “Holodecks” gives millions of people access to learning environments so flexible that almost any technical or societal problem can be explored.

Whether through role playing social dilemmas or visualizing scientific problems in innovative ways, issues too complex for even the most capable experts could be crowdsourced and tackled over and over again by groups of collaborators from across the world. Rather than retreating into personal utopias, he argues VR offers the possibility of iteratively refining virtual mirrors of our world to help society evolve towards a shared utopia.

This is clearly blue sky thinking, but Burleson is not the only one who believes virtual worlds can make the real world a better place. Game designer Jane McGonigal is chief cheerleader for gaming’s ability to pool collective intelligence to solve social ills and improve quality of life. She says multiplayer online games like WoW provide players with important missions, surround them with collaborators, give them regular positive feedback in terms of leveling up and constantly challenging them at the edges of their ability.

At the time of her Ted talk in 2010, WoW players had spent 5.93 million years solving the virtual problems of the fictional world of Azeroth. Imagine if we could channel that experience into solving real world problems, she says.

Elsewhere, director and audio-visual artist Chris Milk has set up a storytelling company that uses VR to explore new forms of communication that let people directly experience each other’s subjective realities, which he believes will break down both physical and societal barriers. There is already some tentative evidence from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab that VR can make people more empathetic towards others.

Danish firm Labster is providing virtual access to state-of-the-art laboratories that would cost millions of dollars to build in real life. And companies like Unimersiv are using VR to provide immersive learning experiences on everything from anatomy to outer space that would be impossible in the real world.

As with all utopian dreams, though, it’s a short slide into dystopia. Is it more likely that these virtual worlds will be arenas of peaceful collaboration or plagued by online trolls? Donning a VR headset is unlikely to prevent the messy realities of humanity from leaching into our virtual lives, and the impact of online vitriol could be far more damaging when delivered across all five senses. Google’s Daydream Labs is already developing technology to tackle VR harassment.

And what about those entrusted with building our virtual realities? Much is made of the media’s ability to shape people’s world view, but what if you could literally build their entire world? Experiments by Nick Yee, a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center in California, have already demonstrated the ability to use subtle tweaks to VR algorithms to make computer agents more likable or persuasive.

Whether the spirit of collaboration, empathy and understanding will win out over humans’ less attractive instincts is hard to call. The advance of VR technology seems inevitable though, and we will most likely have to rely on those developing the technology to build in the required oversight. And putting any barriers in their way may not be in our interests in the long term.

As the world’s least reticent futurist Ray Kurzweil has pointed out, we’re all going to need something to stave off the boredom of living forever once technology cures disease.

NBA commissioner visits Stanford for lesson in virtual reality

By flying like Superman in Jeremy Bailenson's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was convinced that virtual reality could enhance the game for fans and players.

Courtside seats at an NBA game are some of the best tickets in all of sports – the game is literally played at your feet. They're also some of the hardest tickets to get, which is why NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and several other executives from the National Basketball Association visited Stanford for a crash course in how they might create similar experiences for fans in virtual reality.

The visit came at the tail end of a sweep through Silicon Valley technology companies that could offer technology-based upgrades to the NBA's fan experience. The executives found their way to communication Associate Professor Jeremy Bailenson's Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) by way of a tip from the owners of the Golden State Warriors and their marketing team, who have visited the lab several times.

"We were told that [the lab] is a 'can't-miss experience,'" said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, a few minutes after stepping out of a simulator that let him fly like Superman. "Jeremy exceeded our expectations and opened our eyes to applications that we had never considered."

The VHIL is one of the most sophisticated virtual reality environments in the world, and it consists of a suite of gear that creates immersive virtual experiences. Powerful speakers in the wall and floor – which is made of airplane-grade aluminum – provide the sensation of whooshing wind, or the rumbling from an earthquake. Cameras and motion sensors track the subject's every move. As the user looks around, a closetful of computers regenerates his or her view at 75 frames per second and feeds a video image into an Oculus Rift headset.

The visitors strapped on the headset and experienced a handful of the simulations that Bailenson and his students have devised to investigate aspects of human behavior. They flew like Superman to rescue a sick child, crawled under a virtual table to escape falling boxes, and swam around a coral reef being devastated by the effects of ocean acidification. They then experimented with a few mind-boggling virtual experiences – such as the uneasy effect of having your real-life arm movements control your virtual legs, and vice versa – to get a taste of how expertly designed virtual reality can play havoc on the brain.

Getting in the game

As the NBA visitors excitedly compared notes of their time in the virtual world, they agreed that virtual experiences similar to the ones Bailenson has created could provide a unique fan experience.

In addition to serving the millions of fans in the United States who never get to sit courtside, it could appeal to the NBA's huge fan base in China that never gets to attend a game at all. Maybe fans could even get on the court with virtual players, the executives mused, and participate in replays of famous games or view game highlights as if on the court.

It could give fans a sense of the pressure that players face.

"This could let fans experience what it's like to stand on the free throw line with two seconds left in a tie game and 19,000 people screaming at you," Silver said.

Another focus of Bailenson's work is to investigate how spending time in carefully crafted virtual environments can lead to positive changes in real-life behaviors, work that has been funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"Entrenched behaviors are very hard to change, but in our work we've found that virtual reality is very effective at influencing those behaviors, or generating empathy for people in different situations," Bailenson said.

Silver and the other executives saw potential here as well. If sawing down a virtual tree can cause people to use 20 percent less paper, as one of Bailenson's experiments has shown, then perhaps adding a virtual component to the NBA Fit public health campaign could help convince people to eat healthfully and exercise, Silver said.

Virtual practice makes perfect

Virtual reality could also improve on-court performance. For many people, public speaking causes anxiety, increased heart rate and a bit of extra perspiration, but Bailenson has run experiments that, over time, help people come in better control of those feelings. He speculated that a modified version of that program could train players – and referees – to keep their cool under stress and make better decisions.

Another of Bailenson's experiments has looked at the effects of having injured people represented in the virtual world by healthy avatars. The experience helps people overcome pain and improve range of motion more quickly. This raised the possibility of team medical staffs using virtual reality to speed players' rehabilitation from injury or, for instance, give them confidence in the sturdiness of a surgically repaired knee.

In yet another project, Bailenson has worked with Stanford's football team to create 360-degree virtual representations of what a quarterback sees after the snap. By giving quarterbacks an opportunity to repeatedly read defenses in the zero-impact space of the simulator, Bailenson and his colleague Derek Belch found that players improved decision-making by 30 percent, and shaved about one second off the time it took them to make the decision.

Silver could see a similar system being beneficial for turning point guards into better passers, or for training referees on the best places to stand to get the clearest view of play.

"From a training standpoint, you look around the play and it's so clear what the best [passing] option is," Silver said after removing his headset. "Players always tell us how they get better by repeating certain situations. This could be ideal training."

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After many years of hype, virtual reality (VR) hardware and software is now widely accessible to consumers, researchers, and business. This technology offers the potential to transform research and practice in psychology, allowing us to understand human behaviour in detail and potentially to roll out training or therapies to everyone. The aim of this study was to provide a guide to the landscape of this new research field, enabling psychologists to explore it fully but also warning of the many pitfalls to this domain and giving glimpses of the peaks of achievement that are yet to be scaled. We consider both the advantages and limitations of VR technology, from a practical viewpoint and for the advance of theory.

In this study, we focus specifically on the use of VR for human social interactions, where a person interacts with another (real or virtual) person. VR is already widely used in studies of spatial cognition (Pine et al., 2002 ) and motor control (Patton, Dawe, Scharver, Mussa-Ivaldi, & Kenyon, 2006 ) and these have been reviewed elsewhere (Bohil, Alicea, & Biocca, 2011 ). We also focus primarily on creating VR for the purpose of psychology experiments (rather than therapy or education Rose, Brooks, & Rizzo, 2005 ). Note that we use the term VR to mean ‘a computer-generated world’ and not just ‘things viewed in a head-mounted display’, as the term is sometimes used. The latter includes things like 360° video but excludes some augmented reality and non-immersive computer-generated systems which we cover here.

To frame the current study, we consider the world of VR as a new landscape in which the psychologist stands as an explorer, waiting at the edge of the map. We describe the challenges as mountains which this explorer will need to climb in using VR for research. First, we consider the foothills, describing the basic equipment which our explorer needs and mapping out the terrain ahead in a review of the practical challenges which must be considered in setting up a VR laboratory. Second, the Munros (peaks over 3,000 ft in Scotland) can be climbed by many with the correct equipment similarly, we review the issues which may arise in implementing social VR scenarios and the best results achievable using current technologies. Finally, Olympus Mons (the highest mountain on Mars) has yet to be scaled we consider the grandest challenge of creating fully interactive virtual people and make suggestions for how both computing and psychological theory must come together to achieve this goal. Throughout the paper, we attempt to give a realistic view of VR, highlighting what current systems can achieve and where they fall short.

Why bother?

Before even beginning on the foothills, it is worth asking why psychologists should use VR at all, and what benefits this type of interface might bring. As we will see, VR is not an answer to all the challenges which psychology faces, and there are many situations where VR is maybe a hindrance rather than a help. Nevertheless, VR has great promise in addressing some issues which psychology has recently struggled with, including experimental control, reproducibility, and ecological validity. These reasons help explain why many psychologists are now investing in VR and spending time and effort on making VR systems work.

A key reason to use VR in the study of social behaviour is to maximize experimental control of a complex social situation. In a VR scenario, it is possible to manipulate just one variable at a time with full control. For example, if you were interested in how race and gender interact to influence perspective taking or empathy, a live study would require four different actors of different races/genders – it is hard to assemble such a team, and even harder to match them for facial attractiveness, height, or other social features. With virtual characters, it is possible to create infinitely many combinations of social variables and test them against each other. This has proved valuable in the study of social perception (Todorov, Said, Engell, & Oosterhof, 2008 ) and social interaction (Hale & Hamilton, 2016 Sacheli et al., 2015 ).

More generally, VR allows for good control of any interactive situation. For example, we might want to know how people respond to being mimicked by another person (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999 ), under social pressure (Asch, 1956 ) or to a social greeting (Pelphrey, Viola, & McCarthy, 2004 ). Social interactions are traditionally studied using trained actors as confederates who behave in a fixed fashion, and such approaches can be very effective. However, they are also hard to implement and even harder to reproduce in other contexts. Recently, there has been an increasing focus on reproducibility in psychology (Open Science Collaboration, 2015 ) and worries about claims that only certain researchers have the right ‘flair’ to replicate studies (Baumeister, 2016 ). Confederate studies in particular may be susceptible to such effects (Doyen, Klein, Pichon, & Cleeremans, 2012 ), or participants may be behave differently with confederates (Kuhlen & Brennan, 2013 ). All these factors make confederate interaction studies hard to replicate. In contrast, a VR scenario, once created, can be shared and implemented repeatedly to allow testing of many more participants across different laboratories, which should allow for direct replication of studies as needed.

The traditional alternative to studying live social interactions is to reduce the stimuli and situation to simple cognitive trials with one stimulus and a small number of possible responses. For example, participants might be asked to judge emotion from pictures of faces (Ekman, Friesen, & Ellsworth, 1972 ) or to discriminate different directions of gaze (Mareschal, Calder, & Clifford, 2013 ). Such studies have provided valuable insights into the mechanisms of social perception, but still suffer from some problems. In particular, they have low ecological validity and it is not clear how performance relates to behaviour in real-world situations with more complex stimuli and a wider range of response options. Using VR gives a participant more freedom to respond to stimuli in an ecological fashion, measured implicitly with motion capture (mocap) data, and to experience an interactive and complex situation.

Finally, researchers may turn to VR to create situations that cannot safely and feasibly exist in the laboratory, including physical transformations or dangers which could not be implemented in real life. VR scenarios can induce fear (McCall, Hildebrandt, Bornemann, & Singer, 2015 ) and out-of-body experiences (Slater, Perez-Marcos, Ehrsson, & Sanchez-Vives, 2009 ). To give a social example, Silani et al. put participants in a VR scenario where they were escaping from a fire and had the opportunity to help another person, thus testing prosocial behaviour under pressure (Zanon, Novembre, Zangrando, Chittaro, & Silani, 2014 ). This type of interaction would be very hard (if not impossible) to implement in a live setting.

To summarize, VR can provide good experimental control with high ecological validity, while enabling reproducibility and novel experimental contexts. However, it is also important to bear in mind that the generalizability of VR to the real world has not been tested in detail. Just as we do not always know if laboratory studies apply in the real world, similarly we must be cautious about claiming that VR studies, where participants still know they are in an ‘experimental psychology context’, will generalize to real-world interactions without that context. The brief outline above demonstrates how VR systems have the potential to help psychologists overcome a number of research challenges and to answer important questions. However, there are also many issues which must be considered in setting up a VR laboratory and making use of VR in the study of human social behaviour. In the following sections, we review these challenges and consider if and how they can be overcome.

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Social Interaction of the Future

During the COVID-19 crisis we are all becoming much more aware of the technologies for remote social interaction. While we know that at the end of the crisis we will be able to see people face-to-face again, it is also clear that our future will involve more mediated interaction than the past. No technology is perfect, though VR has the potential to improve a lot and overcome some of the limitations of video conferencing. It is still very important to understand the affordances of these different media, and what they are good for. There has been decades of research on this in the fields of VR, media psychology and Computer Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW), this looks like a very good time to look back at them.

This is part of a blog I have started to support learners on our Virtual Reality MOOC, if you want to learn more about VR, that is a good place to start. If you want to go into more depth, you might be interested in our Masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality at Goldsmiths’ University of London.

Materials and methods


A sample of undergraduate students was recruited from a medium-sized private university on the west coast. Most participants received $100 for their participation, though small portion (n = 35) were given extra credit for participation and not paid. Including an indicator variable for whether the participant was paid or received extra credit did not qualitatively affect our results. After dropping participants who were suspicious of the experiment (more on this below), the sample consisted of 180 participants (N = 180): 72 males, 106 females, and 2 individuals who identified as some other gender. The total sample ranged in age from 18 to 29 (M = 20.28) and was racially diverse. See Table 1 below for demographics of participants by condition.


Participants viewed the virtual world using the HTC Vive, a head-mounted display (HMD), that allows for three-dimensional, stereoscopic views of a fully immersive, digitally rendered virtual reality environment. Participants also used two handheld HTC controllers to interact with objects in the virtual environment. Both the HMD and the hand controllers are tracked by two HTC Lighthouse base stations, which send out an array of non-visible light that can be detected by the HMD and hand controllers. The Lighthouse uses the light detection information to determine the 3D position of the HMD and hand controllers, as well as the orientation (pitch, yaw, and roll) of both. The 3D position and orientation of the participant’s head and hands are used to update the rendering of the first-person viewpoint accordingly. Haptic feedback in the form of vibrations through the hand controllers was generated when participants interacted with objects to increase immersion in the virtual environment.


The methods laid out in this article were approved by the Stanford Institutional Review Board. All participants were asked to remotely complete a pretest survey through a Qualtrics survey in which they gave informed consent to participate in the study, completed a battery of survey measures, provided basic demographic information, described their daily routine, and provided details about their personal lifestyle choices (e.g., preferences in clothing, music, art, etc.) under the guise that a virtual experience of their life might be created based on their responses for other students to experience. In fact, three IVEs were created independent of any participant’s responses, but we wanted participants to believe a virtual simulation of their life could have been created and that other people may experience theirs. This leant legitimacy to our later claims that they were experiencing a virtual environment based off the life of another student from the same university. Upon completing the survey, participants were able to sign up to participate in the second part of the study, to take place at least one week after the pretest was completed.

Upon arriving in-person for the second part of the study, participants were randomly assigned to one of the three virtual reality experiences. In the control condition, participants walked around and observed a virtual representation of the lab room where they were participating in the study. They did not have a self-avatar representation or the ability to interact with objects in the virtual environment. Participants in the other two conditions (see below) experienced a “day in the life” of a student who supposedly attended the same university as the participant, taking their perspective within the IVE by embodying a self-avatar that they were told was based off this other student. Participants in either of these conditions had an equal likelihood of embodying “Steve,” or “James” two fictional characters (with similar but not identical backgrounds) the participants were led to believe were real fellow students. This variation in stimuli was introduced to test whether increased empathy from VRPT is target-specific or generalizable to relatively similar others (more on this below).

After completing the IVE treatment, participants were led to a computer in a private survey room to answer a questionnaire and complete a series of behavioral games programmed in Qualtrics. In this portion of the experiment, they were told their answers would be “paired with another student’s”. This language is intentionally neutral so that neither competitive nor cooperative undertones are communicated to the participant, as this would likely affect behavior and perceptions of the “other student”. Thus, participants were assigned randomly to be “paired with” either “Steve” or “James”, independent of their assignment to embodying “Steve” or “James” or to the control condition. This created six possible experiences for the subject, which we group into three conditions:

  1. indirect empathy (n = 65): the participant embodies “James” (“Steve”) and then is “paired” with “Steve” (“James”). We hypothesize that this condition will induce the second most empathy and will therefore elicit the second most prosocial behavior.
  2. direct empathy (n = 52): the participant embodies “James” (“Steve”) and then is paired with “James” (“Steve”). We hypothesize that this condition will induce the most empathy and will therefore elicit the most prosocial behavior.
  3. control (n = 63): the participant embodied no one (and walked around a virtual version of the lab room), and then was paired with either “James” or “Steve”. We hypothesize that this condition will induce the least empathy and will therefore elicit the least prosocial behavior.

Results are robust to specification of “condition” as either direct empathy, indirect empathy, and control, or as the six possible experiences (takes the perspective of Steve and interacts with James, takes the perspective of James and interacts with James, etc.) the participant may have been exposed to, but the former is preferred for interpretability.


In the IVEs created for the experimental conditions, the narrative began with participants standing in an undergraduate dorm room (designed to look like the actual dorm rooms of the university “Steve” or “James” was supposedly from), facing a mirror in front of a sink. Participants were introduced to their self-avatar, which they saw either as an avatar named Steve or an avatar named James (Fig 1). They were given a few moments to adjust to their virtual environment, after which they were prompted to perform a series of simple movements in front of the mirror to help them associate their body’s physical movements with the avatar’s movements that they saw in the mirror. This helped invoke “body transfer”.

The participants may have taken the perspective of James (left) OR Steve (right).

After becoming acquainted with the virtual environment, participants “unpacked their suitcase” by picking up objects with their hand controllers and placing them in their designated spots on shelves in the room (Fig 2). After completing this task, participants were instructed that they were about to “attend class”. Participants were then transported to a classroom, where they stood behind a podium and were instructed to give a presentation to a virtual class seated in front of them (Fig 3), based off presentation slides which contained information in bullet point format about either Steve or James (whichever environment they were assigned). They were instructed to speak as if they were Steve or James and elaborate on each bullet point. The authors felt that giving participants sparse information (bullet points) and asking them to expand that information into full, natural-language sentences was the best combination of maintaining experimental control and forcing participants to engage with the information presented. Having participants recite fully-defined text would lead to a lack of cognitive engagement, but having the participants imagine information from nothing would likely lead to huge individual variation and add “noise” to the results. After completing their presentation, participants went to “work out” at a small gym. Here, participants were asked to follow along with a workout video, performing stretches and arm movements in front of a mirror (Fig 4).

Participants hold the HTC controllers (indicated with green circles) in their hands and wear the HTC Vive HMD (indicated with a red circle) on their head as shown and interact with the IVE as their real-world sensory input is replaced with the world of the IVE. The individual in this image (as well as in Figs 3 and 4) has given written informed consent (as outlined in PLOS consent form) to publish these photos.

Participants stand at a podium and give a presentation about “themselves” based on information presented to them via a screen in the back of the classroom.

Participants complete a series of exercises while looking at a screen placed such that they also see a reflection of their avatar.

Pre-manipulation (time-one) independent variables

Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) [49] -Three items on a five-point interval scale were selected because of the large number of questions present on the time-one survey from two sub-scales of the IRI that measure tendency towards empathic concern (EC experience sharing) and perspective taking (PT mentalizing), making a total of 6 items. A sample item from the EC subscale is “I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person” and a sample from the PT subscale is “I believe that there are two sides to every question and try to look at them both” (1 = Does not describe me well, 5 = Describes me well Cronbach’s α for all items = .68, for PT items = .73, for EC items = .74).

Social Value Orientation (SVO) [50]—a nine-item questionnaire which presents participants with three possible outcomes, of which they select their most preferred. Each of these three possible outcomes is indicative of either a competitive orientation, an altruistic orientation, or a prosocial orientation. If a participant answered consistently (6 or more times) in one style of orientation, they were considered to be of that orientation.

Philosophies of Human Nature and Trustworthiness (abbreviated from [51])—A six-item questionnaire to assess tendency to trust others and belief in the good of human nature. Participants were instructed to read each prompt and then use a slider (0 = Disagree, 100 = Agree), which reflects their first impression and views of human nature (M = 49.9, SD = 9.2).

NEO-Altruism [52]—We employed an eight-item, five-point interval scale questionnaire drawn from the NEO-inventory to measure how altruistically participants thought others viewed them to be and how altruistically they viewed themselves. Sample items were, “I’m not known for my generosity” (reverse-coded) and “I try to be courteous to everyone I meet” (1 = Strongly Disagree, 5 = Strongly Agree Cronbach’s α = .66).

Post-manipulation (time-two) independent variables

Inclusion of Other in Self (IOS) [53]—This measure was adapted and employed to measure how connected participants who either embodied James or Steve (i.e. participants who were not in the control condition) felt with the avatar that they embodied. This is a single-item, seven-point scale depicting a series of increasingly overlapping circles (similar to a Venn diagram), one circle labeled “self” and one circle labeled “James” or “Steve,” depending on who they embodied during the treatment. Participants chose the overlapping circles they felt best represented how connected they were with James or Steve.

Body Transfer [37]–An eleven-item, seven-point interval scale assessed how much the participant felt as if they had become James or Steve in the direct empathy and indirect empathy conditions. Sample items were, “In the virtual environment, how much did you feel that your avatar’s body was your body” and “When you were looking in the mirror how much did you feel a strong connection with your avatar as if you were looking at yourself” (0 = Not at All, 10 = Very Much Cronbach’s α = .90).

Spatial Presence [54]—A five-item, five-point interval scale was used to measure perceived spatial presence. Sample items were, “To what extent did you feel that you were really inside the environment?” and “To what extent did you feel that you were surrounded by the environment?” (1 = Not at all, 5 = Very strongly Cronbach’s α = .77).

Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) [55]—A 20-item, five-point interval scale was employed to measure participants’ positive and negative affect at the time of their post-manipulation survey. We chose to add two prompts to the questionnaire to explore gender, “Masculine” and “Feminine”, making a total of 22 items. The initial prompt informed participants that they would need to, “Indicate to what extent you feel this way right now, that is, at the present moment.” Sample prompts were “Alert” and “Hostile”. (1 = Very slightly or not at all, 5 = Extremely Cronbach’s α = .84)

Dependent variables

Post-Manipulation (Time-two) Perspective-Taking—We adapt from the perspective taking subset of the IRI and employ a three-item, five-point interval scale to measure, after being “introduced” to the other student whose answers will be paired with theirs (either “James” or “Steve”) via a short paragraph and picture, the participant’s propensity to take the perspective of this other student. Sample items include asking how much the participant is “…making an effort to see the world through [James’ or Steve’s] eyes” and “…imagining how [James or Steve] is feeling.” (1 = Does not Describe Me Well, 5 = Describes Me Well Cronbach’s α = .92)

Post-Manipulation (Time-two) Empathic ConcernWe adapt from the empathic concern subset of the IRI and employ a four-item, five-point interval scale to measure, after being “introduced” to the student whose answers will be paired with theirs (either “James” or “Steve”) via a short paragraph and picture, the participant’s sense of empathic concern towards their future partner. This scale asks how much the participant is feeling “Sympathetic” and “Compassionate” towards James/Steve upon learning they will be interacting with them (1 = Does not Describe Me Well, 5 = Describes Me Well Cronbach’s α = .71). Given the relatively low alpha score of this scale, we conducted principal component analysis on the four different measures. The first component had an eigenvalue of 2.18 and explained 54 percent of the variance of the scale. Each item had a similar weighting onto this component (weights of 0.48, 0.48, 0.51, and 0.52). The second component had an eigenvalue of 1.07 and explained 27 percent of the variance. We estimated the first component and replicate all analyses presented here with qualitatively similar results. There was no single item which increased the alpha score of this scale if dropped.

Trust Game [56]—In this behavioral game, one individual (the “first mover”) is given an allotment of currency (in our case, 10 “lab dollars”, which participants believed would be exchanged for real currency at the end of the study), any amount of which they can choose to entrust to the “second mover”. This entrusted amount is tripled, and the second mover can choose to return as much or as little of this tripled amount they like back to the first mover. If both players act cooperatively, both can end up with 15 lab dollars (the first mover entrusts all 10 lab dollars, which is tripled to be 30 dollars, which the second mover divides evenly), but if the first mover doesn’t trust the second mover (and entrusts less or none of the original endowment), or if the second mover betrays the trust of the first mover and keeps more than their “fair share” of the tripled endowment, then this (in some ways) optimal outcome cannot be reached.

Participants were instructed on how the game works and were asked a series of questions to make sure they understood the game sufficiently. They then played two rounds of the game, the first as the first mover, where the second mover was the “other student”, and the second as the second mover after the “other student” (being the first mover in this round) had entrusted them with all 10 lab dollars (Participants were told the “other student” had performed these tasks prior to the participant, and their answers were being paired after-the-fact). The amount they entrust to the “other student” as the first mover is indicative of trust towards them (M = 5.9, SD = 3.2), while the amount they return as the second mover measures how much greed they display towards the “other student” (M = 11.8, SD = 5.9).

Dictator Game [57]—In this behavioral game, the Dictator, known as the “Decider”, would receive an endowment of 10 lab dollars and decide how many lab dollars would be sent to the “Receiver”, after which the task would be complete there was no recourse for the Receiver and they would have to accept whatever amount the Decider sent. The participant played one round of this game as the “Decider”, which is an additional way to measure levels of greed the participant displays towards the “other student” (M = 3.2, SD = 2.2).

Circle Tracking Game—As part of the exploratory aspect of this study, we developed a computer mediated coordination game, the circle tracking game (CTG), to investigate if there were any differences in participant performance based on their randomly assigned condition (control, direct empathy, and indirect empathy). The CTG consisted of two distinct elements, a ball and a participant-controlled hoop. Participants believed that the ball was a recording of mouse movements the “other participant” had recorded when they completed this task at an earlier time. In reality, this was one of several recorded mouse movements of a member of the research team. Participants’ role in this game was to use their computer mouse to control the hoop and to keep the ball within the boundary of the hoop for as long as possible during the one-minute task. We measure the amount of time they successfully keep the moving ball within the hoop. See below (Fig 5) for a graphic depicting the order of the collection of variables.

Analytic strategy

To test our hypotheses, we use ordinary least squares (OLS) regression [58]. To see if there are differences in a self-report or behavioral measures across conditions, we regress this dependent variable on a set of two indicator (binary) variables, one of which is equal to one if the participant is in the direct empathy condition and zero if not, and the other which is equal to one if the participant is in the indirect empathy condition and zero if not. The coefficients in the regression associated with these variables can be interpreted as the mean difference between the respective condition and participants in the control condition. For presentation purposes, to test for differences between the two experimental conditions, we prefer a linear combination or linear contrast post-estimation test to running a separate model with one of the experimental conditions as the withheld group.

To “control” for other variables (examine the effect of the manipulations as independent linear contributions to the dependent variables to the “controlled for” variables), we simply include these variables in the list of regressors for the regression. To test for “moderation” (whether the effect of one regressor on the dependent variable is contingent on the value of another regressor), we include both regressors as well as the product of the two regressors in the regression. We use a standard α = 0.05 threshold for reporting significance, but report either standard errors or p-values for all meaningful coefficients associated with a statistical test. We elect, however, to not report these for coefficients associated with “constants” (expected value of the dependent variable when all regressors equal zero) for presentation purposes. For further details on other analyses, see our pre-registration form at the link in the introduction section.


Immersive virtual reality can be used to visually substitute a person’s real body by a life-sized virtual body (VB) that is seen from first person perspective. Using real-time motion capture the VB can be programmed to move synchronously with the real body (visuomotor synchrony), and also virtual objects seen to strike the VB can be felt through corresponding vibrotactile stimulation on the actual body (visuotactile synchrony). This setup typically gives rise to a strong perceptual illusion of ownership over the VB. When the viewpoint is lifted up and out of the VB so that it is seen below this may result in an out-of-body experience (OBE). In a two-factor between-groups experiment with 16 female participants per group we tested how fear of death might be influenced by two different methods for producing an OBE. In an initial embodiment phase where both groups experienced the same multisensory stimuli there was a strong feeling of body ownership. Then the viewpoint was lifted up and behind the VB. In the experimental group once the viewpoint was out of the VB there was no further connection with it (no visuomotor or visuotactile synchrony). In a control condition, although the viewpoint was in the identical place as in the experimental group, visuomotor and visuotactile synchrony continued. While both groups reported high scores on a question about their OBE illusion, the experimental group had a greater feeling of disownership towards the VB below compared to the control group, in line with previous findings. Fear of death in the experimental group was found to be lower than in the control group. This is in line with previous reports that naturally occurring OBEs are often associated with enhanced belief in life after death.

Citation: Bourdin P, Barberia I, Oliva R, Slater M (2017) A Virtual Out-of-Body Experience Reduces Fear of Death. PLoS ONE 12(1): e0169343.

Editor: Gavin Buckingham, University of Exeter, UNITED KINGDOM

Received: April 14, 2016 Accepted: December 13, 2016 Published: January 9, 2017

Copyright: © 2017 Bourdin et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: The data is available in Supporting Information.

Funding: This work was supported by the Immortality Project at UC Riverside, a John Templeton Foundation project, and the Catalan Government (2014-SGR855), The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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