What does Virtual Reality (VR) mean to you? Listen to the news, and on a regular basis, you’ll hear headlines about the latest VR product being rolled out and how VR is set to revolutionise all our lives. Here at Bath, we are leading the way with some of these VR innovations - from new ways to combat pain or even prevent sexual harassment.
As I reflect back on my time at Bath, VR stands out as the most unexpectedly pivotal part of my BSc (Hons) Psychology degree. It has opened doors that I didn't know existed and has set me on a path very different to the one I imagined when I first applied to study here.
For my dissertation, I investigated how the visual part of the virtual environment affects how present people feel in that world. This research enabled me to explore the wealth of VR research taking place around the world, including right here on our campus.
Having now graduated, I want to highlight a small selection of that research so that more people can be aware of how our VR research is making a difference and having an impact.
Working with Meta (Dr Michael Proulx)
When thinking of cutting-edge VR research, many imagine improvements in the technical hardware, such as higher-quality displays or lighter headsets. However, recent research from Bath suggests that the next frontier of VR development might actually be psychological. VR is not just the technology but also how we interact with it, how we experience it, and how it makes us feel.
The goal of VR is to transport you to a virtual world and have you feel like you are truly there, but of course, this also requires some imagination. ‘Imaginative suggestibility’ is how well you are able to experience an imaginary scenario as if it were real. Researchers at Bath, including psychologist Dr Michael Proulx have found that imaginative suggestibility can have significant and remarkable effects on how present you feel in the virtual world.
One explanation for this is that people with high imaginative suggestibility are able to use their imagination to expand upon the existing visuals. Alternatively, they may be able to use their imagination to ignore glitches in the technology which bring others out of the experience.
These findings indicate that psychology plays a significant role in how users experience VR. What users perceive as realistic is not simply a result of the technology but also heavily influenced by how each individual processes the virtual world.
Dr Proulx has significant experience researching perception using technology such as VR and eye tracking at Bath. It was through this research that I first got exposed to VR research and how it can be used in psychology.
I was clearly not the only one to be inspired, as when Meta’s hardware team felt like they were missing someone who could understand the human factors of interacting with VR, it was Michael they hired. Alongside his role as a research scientist at Meta in Redmond, Washington, Michael remains involved with the numerous VR research projects at Bath.
"My VR work at Meta and Bath has allowed me to explore such a diversity of different topics from eye tracking to office design. Being able to apply some of this research in order to help guide VR developments at one of the world’s largest software and technology companies is a really unique and rewarding experience.
"The set-up at Bath, primarily through our state-of-the-art VR labs, but also through collaboration with close colleagues in Computer Science and CAMERA, is really helping to enable a lot of these research innovations to take place.” - Dr Michael Proulx.