Episode 806 1.24.23
Rabindra Ratan, associate professor of media and information and director of the SPARTIE Lab, Michigan State University, joins Peggy to talk about VR (virtual reality), the metaverse, and immersive technologies. He explains the Proteus effect and shares what it is like to teach classes in virtual reality.
Peggy Smedley: Everybody’s talking about immersive technologies and they’re talking about what’s happening in the metaverse and what’s really exciting, and for those who might not know what the Proteus effect is or avatars, I really want you to start out with what your research areas are, because there’s so much you’re doing. I’d love for you to start helping us understand that.
Rabindra Ratan: Absolutely. So, let’s start with the Proteus effect. It’s a phenomenon that was discovered in 2007 in early virtual reality research, where participants who come into the lab are given an avatar and they see a virtual mirror so they can see themselves and they interact either in the virtual environment only, or in the virtual environment for a bit. And then they leave that environment, and they do something else afterwards. And what the studies have found by now, and there are over 50 studies of this phenomenon. And what the studies have found is that when people use an avatar that has certain characteristics, they will act in ways that are consistent with their stereotypes of those characteristics. But they don’t realize they’re doing it. So, if you use an avatar that’s taller in a virtual environment, you’re more likely to negotiate aggressively afterwards. If you see yourself in that avatar in the virtual mirror, in an avatar that’s more attractive, you’ll have more social confidence, you’re more likely to stand close to people in the virtual environment, or afterwards, you’re more likely to choose more attractive dating partners on a website. My personal favorite is if you use an inventor avatar, that has a lab coat, reminds you of a scientist, you’re more likely to come up with creative ideas during a brainstorming task, compared to people who use casual clothing avatar.
There are many studies of this also in exercise and health, so we find if people see themselves in a fit avatar, they’re more likely to exercise vigorously or for a longer period of time, or more frequently for a full week after the study. We can have people choose healthier or unhealthier foods based on the types of avatars that they’re using. And the list goes on into many different realms of meaningful and maybe frivolous contexts. But what we see here generally, this is an interesting kind of theoretical area. So, I’m a media researcher. I study these technologies, or I study the uses of these technologies, but we’re trying to develop a larger understanding that extends beyond specific cases. And this illustrates that our perception of self, the way that we imagine who we are or how other people imagine us to be, that’s malleable. And you might think that makes sense intuitively. It is self-concept relating to whether you’re at work with your boss or at home with your family, or out with your significant other, right? Your sense of self changes based on those people around you. But the new perspective here is that when you’re using avatars, your sense of self changes as well, and it depends on how you perceive that avatar. And that’s very important because as you likely know, the extent to which we use avatars in our mediated experiences is dramatically increasing.
We’ve got VR headsets now that are quite affordable for the public, about the cost of video game console. And people are using them for work, for meetings. It’s not just for gaming anymore. People use them to exercise and to connect. Socially, social media applications are becoming increasingly robust. I teach my classes, as you mentioned in VR. So, in all of these experiences, we’re using an avatar, and it’s not just a gaming, sitting at a computer experience. Now, avatars are immersing us and we’re experiencing that self-presence, that sense of self extension into the virtual environments through avatars. So, the Proteus effect suggests that there are weird new psychological frontiers to explore and maybe be wary of as we use these technologies in our daily lives.
Smedley: Robby, I like the idea of the impetus behind this is being more confident, to be this great new inventor, to create new solutions, or to find some new cure for some illness that now you have the confidence to say, I always wanted to do this, but never thought I could. So, we see the introvert becoming the extrovert. Is that the avatar that maybe you are seeing now that we can maybe hope for, or maybe this becomes?
Ratan: Absolutely. With optimism. Absolutely. We can imagine great uses of these technologies that are beneficial to society. We can imagine increasing empathy for others and feeling closer to people who we might otherwise perceive as being in outgroups.
We can imagine increasing motivation. To not just exercise, but to work hard at your studies, or to eat healthier, or to be kind to your neighbors, or friendly to connect with your parents and loved ones more. These are all things that media has been trying to do for, I guess the history of media, we communicate to influence people, right?
And so, this is a new way in which we’ll do that. There will be a flip side, right? It could be bullying or toxicity or just influence for unnecessarily harmful activities. And there are always two sides of every sword, or coin. And in this case, I think it’s important that we recognize this influence as researchers and then start to prepare future users for responding to it.
Kind of like the way we were seemingly caught by surprise with the flood of fake news surrounding elections not long ago. We and our governing bodies might not be ready for the types of influence or the types of power that these technologies give their users. And if you’re listening to this now, you’re already ahead of the curve and you can start to see, oh, the avatars that I use in this environment, oh maybe I customize this one piece, but there’s something about this avatar that feels like it’s trying to get me to do something. And if you’re having that instinct, you should trust it because there is a good chance that as you go off into these virtual worlds, the avatars that you’re using are designed in a way to influence you or to at least guide your experiences. It might not necessarily be a nefarious kind of actor manipulating you, but people should be aware of when others are trying to manipulate them, I think.
Smedley: You and I both know that fake news isn’t new to all of us. We’ve been talking about some form of fake news for a very long time with going to the moon and years ago, this discovery and things like this.
So …. help us all define the metaverse for everyone because now we’re talking about avatars and metaverse and immersive technologies. How would you then define it for everyone, so they have a better understanding of what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about this world?
Ratan: Sure. Absolutely. So as simply as I can, and as broadly as I can because I think there are many definitions out there. I would say that the metaverse is a network of persistent or always on virtual worlds that people can navigate easily and move between using avatars. And so period, full stop right there.
Now to elaborate a little bit on that, what does it mean for it to be a network while they’re connected to each other? So, the internet is a network. The metaverse is a network. You can just think of it as the kind of next iteration, the evolution of the internet that is immersive. So, what are virtual worlds? Those are websites that are actually three dimensional. So, you can experience them using virtual reality goggles or augmented reality goggles where you look around and the world is surrounding your view and when you turn your head to the left, the whole world changes and it moves, unlike a computer screen, which kind of stays static regardless of how your head moves, these screens can move with you. And so that makes the experience of use very different. It makes you feel like you are present, you are there. The big difference between being in a virtual world versus using many other types of media is the extent of that presence, that psychological state they call it a perceptual illusion of non-mediation, right? Your brain is tricked into thinking it’s not media, but it really is. Or the sense of being there, or the experience of virtual objects as if they’re real. There are many ways to define presence, and researchers in my field have been doing that for a while, but you know it when you try on these VR headsets, you know that you’re experiencing something a little bit more immersive, you could call it, than other media.
Smedley: So how does this work when you’re teaching class then? What’s that feel like? Can you put us into that experience then?
Ratan: Absolutely. And if you wanted, there are videos in my lab website that you can see of my students in my class and I meeting together. It looks like a game, if you take a quick glimpse, oh look, there are a bunch of cartoonish characters getting together. But it’s not a game in the sense that you are being guided through a class the same way as I would sit in a Zoom call, and I would lead discussion and have my students respond and interact and read things that are out on the internet. We do exactly that in the virtual world. It can look like a classroom; you can have a virtual environment that has desks and a whiteboard. That’s pretty boring to me. I prefer to hold class under the ocean or at the beach, or on a space station or at the Pantheon. There are so many different environments, and we move between these environments. All the students are represented by avatars that they have customized, many of whom kind of create avatars that look like themselves to some extent. The platform we use is designed for business. It’s not designed to be playful or gamey. So, everyone is a human figure. They’re anthropomorphic. There are many virtual environments where you can also be less anthropomorphic, and you could be a frog, or a crab, or a cow, or not anthropomorphic at all, you could just be a big block or a refrigerator. But I don’t think that’s appropriate for our classroom. And the platform we use I think is great for sharing information between people, so you can you share your screen on a Zoom call. You can also share your website browsing that you do within the virtual reality headset, you can share that into the virtual world. So, I do that with my students. I’ll bring up a webpage that displays the comments they’ve written on the reading, and I’ll bring that up in a big screen, like a whiteboard at the front of the classroom, except it’s just floating in the sky and it’s hundreds of feet large so they can see it from wherever they want and I tell my students, pull up a chair, and they make these virtual chairs appear and they put them up in the air, get it, pull up a chair. So, they’re floating around in the sky, they’re sitting in their virtual chairs. They’re looking at my whiteboard, where I’m sharing a web browser from my own interface, and then I’m having a discussion with them about what they’ve written in response to the reading. When they want to raise their hand because they’re hundreds of feet away as far as virtual feet go in some cases, they shoot me with their laser pointers. So, raising hands doesn’t help because they can’t see their hands. But if they shoot me with their laser pointers, I know exactly who’s shooting me, and then I call on that person. And then one more thing that’s really important in my virtual class in VR is that I encourage them to fidget in the world. When I’m sitting in a regular classroom, I lose 80% of the back row students, about 40% of the way through the class, they just multitask, they get tired, they get bored, they jump on their computer, check their email, go on to play a game of chess, or whatever. And their attention span diminishes. I don’t mind if they fidget and multitask, but if it’s taking them away from the thought process involved in the class, that’s bad. But in my VR class, I tell them, okay, fidget, do some 3D drawing.
On Halloween I had this great experience where this one student drew this beautiful spider and it’s in three dimensions, right? It’s an object. It’s not just a flat thing. So, if she could clone it, and then all the students were taking her clone spider and cloning it themselves and decorating the room, and all the while we’re having a conversation, it’s not very distracting because they don’t have to move around their bodies to move these objects around and place them around the room. And it was a really nice way of having them learn the tools and feel connected to me and each other, while also learning the material in the class. I love teaching in VR.
Smedley: So, looking at that for these students, that’s what you think they like about taking the class in virtual reality. I guess I’m trying to understand, is this the future for all of classes, every class, all the time, 24/7?
Ratan: I don’t think so. I don’t think any mode of teaching or meeting is great for everyone. Certainly not 24/7, that would get tiring. But even just throughout my entire student population, I have some students who really don’t like coming to class. They don’t want to get out of bed, they don’t want to worry about how they look, and they do great on Zoom classes. I have other students who just thrive on being there in the classroom, being able to raise their hands, paying attention in an environment where they’re surrounded by others, giving social cues, nonverbal or paralinguistic cues about their attention. So, it depends on the individual. VR I would say I feel like it works well for 70% of my students. There are individual differences and kind of a threshold for fatigue. As you may know, Zoom fatigue was a major issue, especially when we were locking down throughout the COVID pandemic. A similar issue here, and I’ve done some research on Zoom fatigue and gender differences in Zoom fatigue, and that’s an issue of equity and gender disparity that we want to pay attention to, and I do worry about it with respect to VR. There’s some research, slightly older research, which suggests that women do have higher virtual reality fatigue than men. But the technologies have been improving, so I think that gap is diminishing. But there hasn’t been much research. It’s hard to publish research saying that there’s no difference. It’s easier to publish research that says there is a difference between two groups. And so, it’s hard to tell exactly, but we do need to be aware of what students this is appropriate for, what students it’s not. I love the model of teaching in VR. I think it’s great for flexibility and allowing students to be far away and yet feel like they’re close with their professors, close with their classmates. But I worry that the model of that higher education might change to have the haves, the in-person haves, and the virtual have nots. And if you can’t afford to fly to whatever city the university’s in or can’t afford to live there you just, be a student from home. But then you don’t get access to all of the resources on campus or the people, the faculty outside of class, et cetera. And so, then you end up with a kind of a gap. Not a digital divide, but a virtual divide, that in some ways might be a vicious cycle, right? Because then people who don’t have access to those resources in education don’t get jobs that are as strong and so then they don’t make as much money, so then it’s self-reinforcing.
Smedley: So, we have an equity issue that you’re worried about over time, is that what you’re saying?
Ratan: Exactly. There’s a potential equity issue. I don’t think it’s a reason to hinder our kind of movement in this direction because I think the benefits will outweigh the cost, but we need to keep these potential costs in mind as we move forward and try to proactively mitigate them.
Smedley: What does the research, just in general, that you’ve looked at now about the psychological influence of avatars suggest about the research or just the future of the metaverse because it sounds exciting. I also think there’s health issues for those who can’t be in there for very long periods of time. I see what you’re saying. There’s the pros and cons of all of it. So, there’s got to be a balance, is what I’m hearing, but there has to be some research that you’ve seen already, that psychological influence on avatars suggests about the future of the metaverse, just in general.
Ratan: Yeah. Absolutely the writing is on the wall once the technologies are functional enough to be comfortable for people. And that means lighter weight headsets that are less eye straining and longer battery lives and faster computing power. So once the hardware works, people will be so immersed in this technology in the same way as we are now. We’re constantly using our phones, walking around the world, staring at our social media feeds, and engaging with friends and family and work. Remember when they called it the CrackBerry, right? Or the virtual leash. That was a response to the novelty of having mobile devices. No one would call it a CrackBerry now because we’re all addicted, right? We’re all on the CrackBerry and yet we might disparage or at least look askance at people walking around the world in virtual reality or augmented reality goggles as being disconnected from our daily reality, the truth of what it means to be human. But it wasn’t long ago that we were saying CrackBerry. Absolutely a hundred percent, I think these technologies, the metaverse, the internet with a deeper interface, is somewhat inevitable for better or worse. And so, I hope we can, as people who listen to podcasts like this or study it or work in these fields, I think we can hopefully shape that future to make it have more of a positive effect on society.
Smedley: I think if you were to poll, I’m not sure that the younger generation might understand. So now that we’ve shared that, everybody had a BlackBerry and got all their text messages from it and their emails from it. But I guess the question now, I would wonder, do we have to do something that would set it up so that it could be affordable, that it could be used, that we could understand it? Is that the hope that professors like yourselves, that say, look, this is going to be the future, and it opens up to building confidence. That introvert becomes an extrovert, or we eliminate bullying, or we explore new worlds, and we solve new crises, or we expand and we engage with new individuals across the world. There’s so many things I hear you saying from just this very conversation.
Ratan: Absolutely. The potential is vast and optimistic. There’s a lot we can do with this technology. The term cyberspace. Many listeners might associate that with the internet, but it was invented, the term, in the book, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and he was actually referring to what we call the metaverse today, he was referring to this kind of immersive, ubiquitous information system that you could access through goggles or through any information portal, like a phone, and you don’t necessarily have to think of it as technological, so much as informational. The increasing access to information and the flow of information gives us power as a species, as a culture, or set of cultures. And it’s going to dramatically change the world and make the good things better and the worst things worse, and yeah, so as a professor I try to highlight the opportunities to make things better.
What are some of the major problems facing the world? We talked about carbon footprint earlier. If you want to reduce carbon footprint and travel less, have more meetings in VR. That might be one way to contribute to that. If you want to, I don’t know, encourage better learning and more persistence in education, there are great tools for connecting people to educational content in VR. So yeah, pick your value and think about what the internet is doing for it now, and then imagine what more could be done through these immersive technologies, and you’ve got something that will emerge in the next, five to 10 years.
Smedley: So, you’re talking right now about teaching. What are we really looking at from the ability of setting up virtual reality for yourself, your team members, the transactional idea, everything from buying cars, to really living in this virtual world that you’ve just described. Are we going to have this immersive world similar in the way we do an e-commerce world? Will this eventually happen not just from an educational perspective?
Ratan: Oh, absolutely. Pick a website, any website. And now imagine that instead of looking at the information on that website in text or in pictures and videos you are walking through the world of that website. So, you mentioned e-commerce. Amazon is a great example of a ripe place for virtual interactions. Instead of looking at pictures of the objects, I could look at three-dimensional scans of the things that I want to buy. I could get a sense of how big they are relative to other objects. I could pick it up in my virtual hand and spin it around and look at the angles of it. I might even, eventually, this is, 10 to 20 years down the line, get a sense of how heavy it is or how soft it is, right? I’ll be able to use haptic gloves to interact with these things. So, we will increasingly experience sensory engagement through our eyes, our kind of vestibular system, our hands, et cetera, through these technologies, these metaverse technologies and yeah, that will make it easier to choose which car you want to buy or which I don’t know, light fixture you want to get for your home, the groceries that you’re shopping for, right? The metaphor of walking down the aisles might work really well for getting food. Or maybe there’s an even better way to choose your groceries virtually. Lots of us ordered groceries when we were locked down throughout the pandemic, but you probably agree with me that it was not the smoothest and most enjoyable experience. And I’m a media and information professor, I use media technologies all the time and I hated it. It was just so painful to navigate these grocery searching websites and lots of very smart people design those websites, but it just doesn’t really align with my mental model for how to choose food or how I want to experience the taxonomy of food choice.
Now imagine, I can do it by pointing and clicking and swiping my hands in many different directions. I wish you could see me. I’m swiping my hands here as if I was choosing food from a virtual grocery store that had aisles and aisles all the way up to the ceiling that were easy and efficient. So, there are many different activities. Every activity that we do on the internet can probably be done in a virtual world and in most cases in a way that is more intuitive and immersive and makes people feel more present than they do now.
Smedley: That 4D experience that we want when we design things that we do today, that we want to be able to experience, how long before we’ll be able to do that, that we’ll experience in the virtual world every day?
Ratan: It depends on how early of an adopter you want to be, right? So, I’d say within five years we will have probably largely accessible technologies for people who are willing to adopt them. But you might remember, in the year 1995, we had people on their CrackBerries and we had people with no cellphones at all. In the year 2005, we had people using what we started calling fashion phones or shortly after that, a few years later, smartphones, the original iPhone, but we still had people using flip phones or even no phones, right? In the year 2020, I knew someone who had no cellphone which was amazing to me, but same thing here. When will we hit like the middle of the adoption level? In the same way as mobile phones became mostly ubiquitous in the early 2000s around the globe. So, at what point would VR become mostly ubiquitous around the globe? 2030 is my guess and don’t hold me to it.