By Marcus Cheetham
Virtual reality provides a sophisticated approach to facilitating intervention in psychotherapy by bringing aspects of the real world and its complexities to ‘virtual’ life. An increasingly important part of this approach involves the use of avatars (i.e. computer-generated characters). The anthropomorphic realism of avatar appearance and (interactive) behaviours is advancing steadily. Even with the success of virtual-reality based interventions, an understanding of the impact of advances in anthropomorphic realism on human experience is important because this is likely to contribute to optimising the effectiveness of an intervention. An important question is how humanlike does an avatar, or virtual human, need to be to optimally evoke and sustain the patient’s attention, behaviour and experience in a way consistent with the aim of the intervention?
Comparatively little research has been conducted into the specific influence of high anthropomorphic realism of virtual humans on human experience. One point of concern that is currently receiving the attention of researchers is expressed in the Uncanny Valley Hypothesis. The hypothesis posits that highly realistic virtual humans might have a negative impact on affective experience (i.e. a disquieting or uncanny effect) when the virtual human is sufficiently realistic that a person is not quite sure whether it is actually human or nonhuman. One focus of recent research has been to examine therefore how affective experience is influenced by the anthropomorphic realism of virtual humans. Research of this kind is still in its infancy, and the initial findings are not yet conclusive. More research needs to be conducted to determine when and under what conditions such high levels of anthropomorphic realism might negatively impact subjective experience. Another focus of recent research has been to develop a more in-depth understanding of whether and in what way individuals use different sensory information and cognitive processing strategies to perceive and recognise virtual humans than they use to process their human counterparts. One important consideration is that individuals usually have extensive everyday experience processing faces of the human category and processing perceptual differences between human faces but comparatively little experience of this kind with virtual humans. In one study, Cheetham, Suter and Jancke used fMRI and a paradigm designed to isolate neural processes that specifically respond to a change in category between human and highly realistic avatar faces (Figure 1). The findings show that a different pattern of brain structures responds to faces of the human compared with the virtual human category. Importantly, these structures are known to respond differently depending on the degree of categorisation experience with a given category. Motivated by this fMRI study, subsequent studies using other methods of investigation support this, indicating that perceptual and categorisation knowledge and experience influences the use of different perceptual and cognitive strategies to distinguish between and recognise virtual human faces compared with human faces.
Research of this kind is still in its infancy. But it is likely to contribute to understanding how greater and, under circumstances, lesser humanlike realism (e.g. more stylised virtual humans) might be best utilised to influence human experience and behaviour in a way that is consistent with the aims of an intervention or of other applications. Given the pace of progress in computer-graphics technologies in developing more realistic and intelligent interactive virtual humans and the advance of these technologies into a diversity of traditional human activities such as psychotherapy, learning and education, marketing and communication, it is likely that research into the effects of humanlike realism on human experience will intensify and contribute to the effective use of virtual humans in a range of applications.
Marcus Cheetham , Ph.D. University of Zurich firstname.lastname@example.org
President of Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) in Brussels, Belgium. Executive VP Virtual Reality Medical Center (VRMC), based in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. CEO of Interactive Media Institute a 501c3 non-profit Clinical Instructor in Department of Psychiatry at UCSD Founder of CyberPsychology, CyberTherapy, & Social Networking Conference Visiting Professor at Catholic University Milan.