Mel Slater's Presence Blog

Thoughts about research and radical new applications of virtual reality - a place to write freely without the constraints of academic publishing,and have some fun.

24 January, 2010

The Illusion of Violence

If you see some people fighting in the street, how do you respond? Some people may intervene and try to stop the fight, others may try to get help, others may just watch, join in one side or the other, or do nothing but get away as quickly as possible. How people respond to violence is an important topic in social psychology, and the issue goes back to a case that happened in the US in 1964, the violent murder of a young girl while apparently 38 bystanders stood by and did nothing. There is controversy over what actually happened, about whether there really were these bystanders, but anyway a whole area of research was opened up in social psychology to try to understand this ‘bystander effect’. One of the problems in studying this is that, of course, it is impossible to carry out experimental studies of how people respond to violence that they might encounter by chance in a public place. The social psychologist Dr Mark Levine of the University of Lancaster has come up with some ingenious ways to try to study this problem, and actually his view of how crowds behave is not quite so negative as the popular view that crowds are bad and that they encourage or don’t prevent violence. A few years ago Mark and I talked about the possibility of using virtual reality to study this issue, since in VR one can set up apparently contingent violent confrontations between virtual people and then study how real people respond to this.

We know from research into presence that people do, in VR, tend to respond as if situations and events were real. (On this topic, my paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, mentioned in earlier posts, is freely available online until the end of February).

So if we place people in a virtual reality where there are virtual characters who start arguing and fighting with one another, then this might prove an interesting way forward for the experimental study of the topic of the bystander effect.

Actually one reason why we did the virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiment was that we needed to convince sceptical EPSRC project reviewers that it is the case that people do tend to respond realistically. (On this point too another paper has been published recently using brain imaging to try to understand what happens when people do experience that Milgram paradigm). The EPSRC were convinced, and Mark Levine, Prof. Jian J Zhang and I obtained project funding, with this as the major application.

We carried out a first pilot study on the issue of people's responses to violence in virtual reality which has now been published. Actually this did not portray violence but aconfrontation between two football fans that would eventually lead up to violence. The results were very encouraging, and we are now carrying out a full study.

Other News

On the topic of ‘response as if real’ there are some other recently published papers from our group that might be of interest. The first examines whether illumination realism makes any difference when people experience standing over a virtual pit. Does it help to have dynamic shadows and reflections? A pre-publication version is available online.

The second shows that when people walk across a narrow beam in virtual reality they tense their back muscles to avoid falling. This is in press with IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, and is available as a pre-publication version.

The third shows that how people scan their eyes over a scene in virtual reality follows a pattern that is similar to what might occur in reality.

The fourth shows that people exhibit behaviour consistent with proxemics theory when virtual characters break into their virtual space, which is in press with ACM Transactions on Applied perception

Research Posts Available

I have several jobs available in the group in Barcelona. Take a look at over the next few days and you will see the adverts appear.