When individuals create their own avatar and modify it, the difficult situations faced by their alter egos may influence the perception of the virtual environment, according to researchers.
In a new study, researchers recruited 121 college-aged participants — 58 female and 63 male — from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea. The students entered a virtual reality lab and were asked to evaluate the hills.
One group of participants was assigned avatars, but another group was allowed to customize their own. In each of these two groups, half of the participants saw that their avatar had a backpack, while the other half had an avatar with no backpack.
To keep the students from guessing why the researchers had added a backpack, a story was given stating that the backpack made the hiking experience as lifelike as possible.
Those who had designed their own avatar and also noticed that a backpack was strapped to his or her back tended to overestimate the heights of virtual hills, just as people in real life tend to overestimate heights and distances while carrying extra weight, according to Sangseok You, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan.
“You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself,” said S. Shyam Sundar, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State.
“Your identity mixes in with the identity of that avatar and, as a result, your visual perception of the virtual environment is colored by the physical resources of your avatar.”
Working in a virtual environment with three hills of differing heights and angles of incline, participants who customized their own avatars perceived those hills as higher and steeper than those who were assigned avatars by the researchers, Sundar said. They also overestimated the amount of calories it would take to hike up the hill if their custom avatar had a backpack.
“If your avatar is carrying a backpack, you feel like you are going to have trouble climbing that hill, but this only happens when you customize the avatar,” said Sundar.
The findings may help trainers and game developers develop virtual reality exercises and games that are more realistic and more immersive. For example, just as participants who customized their avatars with a backpack in this study changed their perception of their virtual environment, people with disabilities may feel more empowered creating an avatar that has physical aids to navigate a virtual environment.
Soldiers may want to create their own avatars to better simulate their perceptions of actual conditions in virtual reality exercises.
“Because building avatar identity is critical, it’s important to let users customize it,” Sundar said. “You are your avatar when it is customized.”
Future research will look into whether altering more elements of the users’ avatar will lead to broader changes in how people perceive virtual environments.
The researchers presented their findings at the 2013 Annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris.
Source: Penn State