Step into a child's shoes through virtual reality

Credit: Mel Slater

Wouldn't you love to go back in time and be a kid again? Now, you can. Sort of. Scientists at the University of Barcelona in Spain have discovered a way to turn adults into children by using virtual reality.

To enter virtual reality, people must put on full-body suits that track their movements, along with goggles that display the artificial world for their virtual body. As the virtual and real movements sync, the computer-generated bodies begin to seem real. Previous studies have shown that subjects begin to feel as if their own body has changed into the simulated one. For example, a volunteer placed into the body of a teenage girl reported to have felt it when her mother slapped her computer-generated representation. At the time, though, scientists still did not understand how ownership of the virtual body affected the subject's perception of the world around them.

In the new study, computer scientists Mel Slater and his colleagues put adult volunteers into a virtual scene outdoors where they did not have a computer-generated body. These volunteers were asked to estimate sizes of cubes within that scene and were then told whether their guesses were too big, too small or correct. The volunteers were then allowed to re-enter the scene and repeat the exercise without feedback. Those estimates were noted by researchers. After this, the subjects were placed into two separate virtual characters they would control. One of these was a 4-year-old child, while the other was an adult at the same height of the child. The participants were placed in a virtual living room and were asked to guess the size of cubes, again without any feedback.

The volunteers stated that they felt the two virtual bodies were equally as real. However, participants in the child's virtual body rated the cubes twice as large, on average, than those in the adult's virtual body. After the simulation, participants who had been in the virtual child body characterized themselves with more childlike traits. For example, a volunteer who had been a virtual 4-year-old was more likely to think of themselves attending primary school than someone who had been in the adult body. These perceptions are important as both virtual bodies were around the same size.

Such a study could be used in the future to help people develop an empathy for others who are unlike themselves. Imagine a world where criminals are put into the virtual body of their victims or where someone is allowed to see what it's like to be of a different race or gender.


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