Oliver Jacobs & Nicola Anderson, Ph.D.
People often underestimate the value of virtual reality (VR). Some critics point to falling sales for VR products as evidence that VR is dying, while others lament that the quality will never live up to the hype – our brains will never mistake the virtual for the real. Meanwhile, little attention is paid to the rapid growth of VR as a tool in institutional research. When people think of VR they typically think of games, sports, or, humans being humans, porn. But sadly, people don’t think about the research.
Why should they? Well, virtual reality enables researchers to have ultimate control over what participants see, hear, and interact with—the holy grail in research. VR has the added bonus of allowing participants the freedom to move their heads and bodies in a more natural way than in a typical laboratory experiment. Normally, there is a balance between studying naturalistic behavior and experimentally controlling it. VR allows researchers the chance to do away with this compromise. For example, most eye tracking studies require participants to have their head fixed in a chin rest – conveniently ignoring the fact that in everyday life people move their eyes, heads, and bodies in order to orient their attention. In the last few years, VR has made it possible to track eye, head, and body movements through virtual space with high precision.
There are so many applications of VR for vision research alone. For example, researchers know a lot about how eye movements work but very little about how eye movements work in conjunction with head movements. In the Brain, Attention and Reality lab here at UBC, VR has been enabling us to learn more about the function of head movements and how they vary with task demands, stimuli, and individual differences. Elsewhere, VR is being used in all sorts of ways including investigating how visual perception differs between 2D and 3D stimuli. One serious criticism of previous work in vision science has been its focus on using 2D stimuli in experiments. The more we begin to understand about visual processing, the more we have come to realize that the visual processes evoked when perceiving 2D stimuli is fundamentally different than the processes used to explore the real world. For example, when viewing pictures there is little activation of the dorsal stream of vision (the ‘where’ pathway) in contrast to when we view 3D stimuli (Nanay, 2011). The majority of previous findings in vision research have been conducted on computer monitors and hence are not capable of displaying 3D stimuli. Imagine how much more we will continue to learn about vision as VR enables us to design experiments with greater validity.
In short, while the success of VR is often assessed in terms of product sales and other aspects of commercialization, people are being shortsighted if they think they can exclaim ‘VR is Dead’. While VR companies work to hammer out the kinks and wrinkles of mass VR adoption, psychologists and other researchers alike need not worry. All we need to do is sit back, relax, and think of how to best take advantage of the technology. So, next time you see a pop article ridiculing the hype around VR, think of the science.