Virtual reality fails to stimulate real responses

By ELAINE CHIAO | January 31, 2019

Many people might recall an experience where simply looking at an image of someone yawning triggers them to yawn. This is no magic; in fact, it is a popular phenomenon known as contagious yawning. Studies in the past have shown that approximately 50 percent of adults would yawn in response to other people’s yawning.

Recently, a group of researchers studying contagious yawning in virtual reality (VR) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) pointed out that people’s actions in a virtual reality setting can be very different from those in actual reality. 

Alan Kingstone, a professor in UBC’s department of Psychology and the study’s senior author, revealed the common stigma associated with VR in a recent press release.

“People expect VR experiences to mimic actual reality and thus induce similar forms of thought and behavior,” Kingstone said. 

Despite this popular belief, the researchers discovered through their studies on contagious yawning that responses in a virtual world do not accurately reflect those in a real world. Their study, published Jan. 22 in Scientific Reports, concluded that contagious yawning does happen in VR, but people do not tend to deter yawns in social situations as much when they know they are in a virtual reality.

The team from UBC, along with Andrew Gallup from State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, carried out their experiments in a VR environment by providing immersive headsets to their test subjects. Then they exposed the subjects to videos of people yawning and measured how many of them yawned during the video. The rate of contagious yawning was found to be 38 percent, which was in line with the real-life rate of 30 to 60 percent.

These numbers changed considerably when the researchers introduced the variable of social presence to the picture. In real life, social presence often decreases the frequency of contagious yawning. However, in this virtual reality study, it seemed to have very limited impact on the subjects’ yawning rates. In fact, subjects yawned at the same rate even when they knew they were in the presence of a human avatar. 

Interestingly, when subjects noticed there was a real person in the testing room, there was a decrease in yawning rate that resembled real-life results. Even though the subjects could not see or hear the person, simply the fact of knowing a researcher was present was sufficient to suppress their yawns. This allowed researchers to draw the conclusion that social cues in virtual reality do not have the same impact as social cues in actual reality.

“Using VR to examine how people think and behave in real life may very well lead to conclusions that are fundamentally wrong. This has profound implications for people who hope to use VR to make accurate projections regarding future behaviors,” Kingstone said. 

As virtual reality emerges as an increasingly promising field of technological development, researchers around the world have been transitioning increasing amounts of studies into virtual reality scenarios. 

The aim of virtual reality is ultimately to use computer technology to create a simulated, three-dimensional environment that can be manipulated in such a way that allows users to explore and feel as if they were physically present in that world. However, a lingering question is now stirred to the surface by the publication of the UBC study: Does virtual reality really predict identical results as actual reality? 

As the researchers have shown in their findings, there might still be a long way to go before virtual reality can fully replace actual reality in detecting and measuring certain experimental characteristics.

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