Inside an unassuming room on Stanford’s campus, a man wearing a VR headset gazes at a mountain-studded horizon that’s fading from pink to blue under a starry nighttime sky. The serene view melts away, and suddenly he’s teetering on a narrow plank of wood above a dark abyss. His heart pounds and he spreads his arms wide, trying to keep his balance.
Instructions are given: Don’t look down — because whichever way you look, you’ll fall. The viewer peers over his right shoulder before abruptly plunging into virtual space. His body jolts and he lands in a crouch, rising slowly to try again.
This demonstration is part of a sampling of the VR experiences designed by researchers at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL). Founded by director Jeremy Bailenson in 2003, the lab uses VR to study human behavior and how it can shift users’ attitudes and positively impact that behavior.
Bailenson and his researchers study how groups form and change over time in VR; how nonverbal behavior and social interaction unfold; and how VR can be used to desensitize people’s phobias, like the fear of heights. They’re also exploring how VR can help people develop empathy for those of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds; grasp the consequences of the climate emergency; and practice high-pressure decision-making. Recently, the lab began using VR as an educational tool, as well as providing its teaching software for other institutions.