Can VR change people’s behavior? Stanford scientists are finding out

The researchers at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab are using the HP Omnicept and other cutting-edge virtual reality tech to better understand how people think and act.

By Garage Staff — December 7, 2021

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.

A PhD student trying on the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept virtual reality headset at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Winni Wintermeyer

Cyan DeVeaux, a PhD student working at VHIL, gets an introduction to the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept VR headset. Omnicept measures biometric data, including eye tracking, heart and respiratory rates, and head movement.

“We study the medium of virtual reality, how it works, and what it can do,” says Bailenson, simply. But the reality is much more complex. The potential for VR to reveal how people learn and how their behavior can be changed is evolving in ever more exciting ways with new and cutting-edge technology.

Using VR to walk in another’s shoes

Bailenson has been at the forefront of the VR movement for decades, publishing more than 200 academic papers and two Amazon best sellers, Infinite Reality and Experience on Demand. In 2020, he received the Virtual/Augmented Reality Technical Achievement Award from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). Bailenson co-founded Strivr, a software VR company that Walmart and sports teams use to train employees in soft skills like customer service or to help players simulate decision-making. Bailenson also consults pro bono for government agencies including the State Department, the US Senate, and the California Supreme Court.

After a year and a half out of the lab, Bailenson’s rotating team of roughly 30 staff, programmers, PhD students, postdocs, and visiting scholars are back in person for meetings and brainstorming sessions. They are currently tackling big questions, such as what types of psychological processes are activated when people use VR and AR — and if the medium can, if deployed at scale, fundamentally transform society.

One area of their research looks at understanding others’ points of view through “perspective taking” — a technological spin on walking a mile in another’s shoes. VR engages the brain in such a way that a person can experience physically what it’s like to be a victim of racism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination. In one test, a subject enters the VR experience and sees themselves as a transformed avatar in a mirror: a Black woman who shifts uneasily while a tall, White man leers over her shoulder and waves his fists threateningly. The stress and nervousness elicited in this charged moment can help the user better understand what it feels like to experience race-based harassment in daily life.

PhD students having a discussion at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

Winni Wintermeyer

PhD students Hanseul Jun and Cyan DeVeaux at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab., where wide-ranging research aims to study how VR and AR can shift human behavior.

“Very few groups are doing studies in that area to understand how to measure things such as empathy. How does one measure the ability of virtual environments and avatars to shift one’s attitudes?” says Walter Greenleaf, a visiting scholar at VHIL who is a neuroscientist, technologist, and expert on the medical applications of VR technology.

Bailenson’s team also conducts research with experiences that are dangerous, impossible, counterproductive, or expensive—an acronym known as DICE. It can be invaluable for training in situations that are risky to replicate, like firefighters entering burning buildings, or costly to practice, such as astronaut training.

It also can transform abstract concepts like climate change into scenarios that users experience viscerally. For example, Bailenson’s lab has developed The Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, where viewers can observe the ocean absorbing CO₂ molecules and watch as a rocky reef degrades and marine life disappears, to personally visualize the damaging effect of carbon pollution on marine life. The VR experience, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and is being deployed in museums and schools, is now downloadable.

“Climate change is invisible, and VR can make it visible. Climate change can feel far away, and VR can make it close,” says Bailenson.

Getting results

Beyond creating and teeing up virtual experiences, VHIL is focused on understanding how the experiences change people. Bailenson’s team thinks carefully about how to monitor attitude shifts taking place in VR.

“Climate change is invisible, and VR can make it visible. Climate change can feel far away, and VR can make it close.”

— Jeremy Bailenson, director, Virtual Human Interaction Lab

“Behavioral data is the gold standard of measurement in psychology,” says Mark Roman Miller, a PhD student in Bailenson’s lab who studies nonverbal behavior and social interaction in VR.

The team tracks behavioral changes immediately after a VR experience and through follow-up tests. After a subject flies through an abandoned city as a superhero, searching for survivors, the researchers knock something over and measure the likelihood of the user jumping in to help pick it up—a proxy for altruistic behavior—compared with someone who didn’t have the VR rescue experience.

While the researchers are able to gather behavioral data such as facial expressions and hand gestures, new technology like the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept Edition headset and SDK (software development kit), which Bailenson helped design tests for alongside HP researchers, will elevate his studies by providing a wealth of physiological data.

Brian Beams setting up a VR experience. VHIL plans to integrate the HP Omnicept into ongoing studies, revealing new types of data.

Winni Wintermeyer

Brian Beams setting up a VR experience. VHIL plans to integrate the HP Omnicept into ongoing studies, revealing new types of data.

The Omnicept measures a user’s biometric data, including eye tracking, heart and respiratory rates, and head movement, information that can’t be gleaned from a typical VR setup. The researchers developed an AI that takes high-level inferences such as users’ cognitive load — a measure of how hard the brain is working — to gain insight into the person’s mental state, stress levels, and attention, including inflection points at which the brain becomes overloaded.


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“Any sort of physiological information could be super valuable,” says Dr. Erika Siegel, a psychophysiologist at HP Labs who worked on developing testing with Bailenson for Omnicept and studies how physical markers reflect our internal state. Those measurements could also provide helpful data to support educators and training across industries of all kinds, from surgical training to public speaking. 

Bailenson plans to integrate the HP Omnicept into the lab’s ongoing studies, revealing new types of data.

“It’s going to be a game changer in the lab, where we’ve never been able to collect good physio data,” says Bailenson. Typically the best devices for gathering that data require staying still. “By definition, good VR involves movement. And the Omnicept bridges that.”

Teaching in VR

This past summer, the pandemic ushered in an unexpected window of opportunity when Bailenson taught an entire curriculum to roughly 100 students in VR for the first time. This quarter, one of three courses Bailenson is teaching will also be in VR — to nearly 170 undergraduate and master’s degree students, the largest ever taught in the medium. Researchers set up a study of the class to give a deeper understanding of how humans engage virtually in social settings — a largely unexplored domain.

In this kind of networked virtual environment, people can meet in real time and interact with one another. There are plenty of questions still to be explored, says Eugy Han, a PhD student who leads the academic study about the VR class, from how responsible people-as-avatars are for their actions to how many people are too many for one location. “It’s a really hot topic,” she says.

Bailenson envisions a day when he can gauge how well HP Omnicept headset-clad students are comprehending his lectures so he can tailor his instruction in real time.

As the lab continues to break new ground, Bailenson and the researchers are thinking about their next projects, such as telepresence systems that use computer vision to beam in a volumetric capture of another human; studying how matching race and gender between co-learners and teachers in VR impacts social and cognitive learning; and integrating their ocean acidification content into high school environmental education curricula. But even as they expand the field of VR studies, Bailenson and the lab have prioritized making content widely available so that others can use it.

It is the emphasis on the real world impact of VR that sets the lab apart, says Stanford’s Greenleaf.

“They’re looking at some very difficult issues, but important issues, in terms of both the evolution of VR technology and its impact on society.”