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Communications of the ACM

ACM TechNews

When Virtual Reality Feels Real

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Researchers in the European Union-funded Presenccia project are conducting experiments to understand why humans interpret and respond to virtual stimuli and to learn how to make those virtual experiences more real and intense. The researchers say their work could create new opportunities in healthcare, training, social research, and entertainment.

In one experiment, the researchers created a virtual bar, which subjects accessed by wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset or by entering a VR CAVE where the images are projected onto walls. The virtual bar tested the subjects' reactions to a virtual fire in the bar. Some participants just ignored the fire while others ran. Project leader Mel Slater says some subjects literally ran out of the VR room despite the fact they knew the fire was not real because they took their cues from the bar's virtual characters.

In another experiment, the researchers re-enacted controversial experiments conducted by U.S. social psychologist Stanley Milgram in the 1960s that tested people's propensity to follow orders even if they knew it was ethically wrong. Some subjects continued following instruction because they knew it was not real, but all subjects had physical reactions, measured by their skin conductivity, perspiration, and heart rate. The research indicated that people's responses are similar regardless if their experience is real or virtual.

From ICT Results
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