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Your choice of virtual environments and avatars can promote positive psychological outcomes when you’re using virtual reality headsets.

Stanford University researchers reported in a research paper that personalized avatars and pretty environments can be psychologically restorative in a study.

They examined how being able to completely transform one’s appearance and digital environment significantly impacts social interactions in the metaverse.

The researchers wrote in a blog post that the ability to transform your appearance as an avatar and experiencing outdoor environments in VR can have profound impacts for users in the metaverse — the term for immersive virtual worlds, such as those experienced through VR headsets, where people are increasingly gathering to play and work, the researchers said.

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Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

When participants were in “outdoor” VR environments surrounded by images of nature, they reported the experience was more restorative and provided greater enjoyment than when they were in “indoor” VR environments.

“In the metaverse, you can be anyone or anywhere,” said study lead author Eugy Han, a doctoral student in communication, in a statement.“Our ongoing work reported in this study is showing who you are and where you are matters tremendously for learning, collaborating, socializing, and other metaverse activities.”

Han was advised by Jeremy Bailenson, a professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University.

The study, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, is the latest to come out of Stanford University’s innovative Virtual People course. Taught by Bailenson and colleagues, the course is among the first and largest ever conducted mostly in VR, the researchers said.

For the study, 272 students used VR headsets to meet in virtual environments for 30 minutes once a week over eight weeks. During those sessions, the students participated in two experiments, accumulating hundreds of thousands of minutes of interactions for researchers to analyze.

Real benefits from virtual environments

The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

One experiment assessed the effects of where the students were, across a range of digital surroundings. The other experiment assessed the effects of who the students were, via how they presented themselves as avatars, the researchers said.

In the experiment focused on virtual settings, students interacted in constrained or spacious virtual environments, both indoors and outdoors. The researchers created 192 unique environments with these varying attributes, from tight train cars to vast enclosed arenas and from walled gardens to endless fields, the researchers said.

When in wide open virtual spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, the students exhibited greater non-verbal synchrony and reported increases in many positive measures such as group cohesion, pleasure, arousal, presence, and enjoyment, versus when the students interacted in constrained surroundings, the study found.

The study also showed that outdoor environments with elements of nature generated more positive feelings independent of the apparent size of the virtual space. “Where you are in the metaverse can have a major impact on your experience and the shared experience of a group,” said Han. “Large, open, panoramic spaces for people to move around in really helped with group behavior.”

The findings accordingly suggest that people can take advantage of the available grandness of VR by opting for big, outdoor environments instead of recreating cramped meeting rooms or lecture halls.

“At the very core of collaboration is people attending and reacting to one another in a productive manner,” said Bailenson, in a statement. “And our data show that all these great downstream things happen when you make your virtual rooms huge compared to a traditional office space.”

Sense of self in VR

Researchers studied more than 270 students in a VR study.

In the other experiment, students virtually interacted with each other either as self-avatars, which resembled the students’ actual, physical-world appearances, or as generic avatars that all looked and dressed alike. The researchers observed the students’ VR behaviors and the students reported on their feelings of measures such as group cohesion, presence, enjoyment, and realism.

The study found that when represented by avatars that looked like themselves, the students displayed more non-verbal synchrony, meaning they gestured and postured similarly to one another. Dovetailing with these observations, the students reported feeling more “in sync” with themselves and each other when congregating as self-avatars, the researchers said.

When represented as generic avatars and thus “not themselves” virtually, the students reported the experience to be entertainingly freeing. “People enjoyed being in generic avatars stripped of all identity,” said Han. “On the other hand, when represented by self-avatars, the students reported feeling more active and engaged.”

Real impacts, virtual locations, and avatars

Outdoor environments make people feel better in VR.

A key takeaway from these results is that for more productive and collaborative interactions — for instance for workplace or professional purposes — self-avatars are the preferred option. “When you’re getting serious in the metaverse, you want to look like you,” said Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) and also a study co-author.

Importantly, the two experiments found that the reported benefits of interacting virtually as certain avatars and in certain environments grew over time. Bailenson said those findings suggest the effects are enduring and not just isolated, positive VR experiences.

The study also demonstrates the potential for VR as a novel and insightful medium for conducting psychological studies, given its unlimited digital possibilities and low costs compared to physical-world alternatives.

“In the history of social science, there are very few studies on the psychological effect of huge indoor spaces, for the obvious reason that it is, for example, very expensive to rent out Madison Square Garden to run a four-person meeting,” said Bailenson. “But in VR, the cost goes away, and one of the more compelling findings from our study is that huge indoor spaces have much of the same redeeming psychological value of being outdoors.”

In an email to GamesBeat, Bailenson said the team set out to find how people’s behaviors and attitudes change over time, how people’s behaviors and attitudes change when they are embodying and surrounded by different avatars, and how people’s behaviors and attitudes change when they are interacting in different environmental contexts.

“In my mind, as one who has studied VR for two decades, there had been a fair amount of work on avatars in the past but until this study there was almost no work on time or place,” Bailenson said. ” In terms of time, it is intensely expensive to put hundreds of people into groups via headset and watch their verbal, nonverbal, and performance data evolve over time, but because this was in the context of a class, and because we were able to purchase a headset for each student, we were able to see that evolution in realtime.”

He added, “In terms of place, we had coders building 24 new worlds each week, specifically to look at the size of the XZ plane and were able to quantitatively answer the question ‘How important is having a large, panoramic space?’  One of the most interesting things from the study is looking at huge indoor spaces, which is not something one can do in the real world but turns out to have a very similar effect as being outdoors does in VR.”

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