Virtual Embodiment

The most praised ability of Virtual Reality is its capability to immerse the user in a Virtual Environment — to the degree that the subject feels present in it. The magic is to be fooled by the system so that one feels present where one actually does not physically reside. This effect can, however, turn even more magical. A deeper step into the effects of technological immersion is found in the concept of Virtual Embodiment. If a subject is embodied virtually,  not only is the virtual environment accepted as such; the subject also identifies with a virtual body or avatar inside the virtual environment. This differs from realizing which character you control in a game — within Virtual Embodiment it is the same processes that make you identify with your real body that makes you identify with a virtual one. This is a key point, as it is why research into virtual embodiment is important.

Peeling layers of the onion: VR can be a tool to discover who we are, through investigation of what and how we identify with our bodies. Illustration: “Mask of Day by Day” by Paulo Zerbato.

Hacking and Experimenting with Consciousness

What is fascinating about both of these possibilities of illusion, then — is how, and that, they are possible at all. Knowledge on how to achieve such immersion is obviously relevant for all VR developers, but the knowledge that can be obtained by researching these phenomena goes far beyond knowing how to apply it in VR technology. By creating experiments in VR, we can generate, and investigate, phenomenas of the mind under various experimental conditions. Exploring Virtual Embodiment, for instance, can enable us with a better understanding of our self-consciousness and the relationship between body and mind. Because of this wider span, research on Virtual Embodiment attracts neuroscience researchers, psychologists, information scientists and philosopher’s alike.

The Rubber Hand Illusion

The Rubber Hand Illusion (RHI) is an excellent example of the kind of ‘brain hacks’ that can be achieved by sensory manipulation. The illusion, as illustrated below, is a perfectly simple experiment that does not even require the use of VR technology to perform.  The RHI was introduced by Ehrson, Spence & Passingham (2004) and has been an ingenious way to illustrate how we identify with our bodies. More importantly for this entry, the results of the experiment has inspired further research on Virtual Embodiment.

Illustration from Thomas Metzinger’s book “The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of the Self”

In the RHI, the hand of the subject is replaced by a rubber hand, while the normal hand is blocked from sight by a separating wall. When the subject is sitting as such, a researcher will stroke each hand, both the rubber and the physical hand, simultaneously. Now, the question is what happens when experiencing the sensory impression of stroking, all the while seeing a corresponding stroke on the rubber hand?

Put very simply, the brain does a ‘reasonable guess’ that this hand is indeed the correct physical hand attached to your body.  You feel that the rubber hand is yours, with nerve-endings and all — and you couple your physical feelings to the vision of the hand. This means that in your subjective experience, the rubber hand is the hand that has the sensation. Ehrson et. al write that their results suggested that “multisensory integration in the premotor cortex provides a mechanism for bodily self-attribution”. When our brains receive sensory information from two differing sensory inputs (sight+feel), these are coupled: the brain is coupling the stroking-sensation with imagery of a nearby-hand being stroked, and this is enough for the brain to attribute its self with the hand, to acknowledge it as its own.

This simple experiment share a lot of principles with the concept of Virtual Embodiment, and has inspired research in the field that we will present in this entry.

Some experience out of body experiences (OBEs) on the onset of sleep or waking up. Often they may feel that they are floating over their bodies. VR may help to study such states of consciousness by systematically inducing them.

Virtual Body Illusion

In a later experiment by Lenggenhager et.al (2007), not only the hands of the subjects — but their whole bodies were replaced with virtual representations. Moreover, in the experiment they present, the bodies are seen from behind. In effect, they were simulating out-of-body experiences, with very interesting results.

The experiment was conducted as such: the subjects wore a Head-Mounted Display which projected imagery from a camera located behind the subjects. As such, the subjects could see a representation of their bodies “live”, but from behind. Of course, this is deviating slightly from how we normally experience life. Although the subjects saw their body responding and performing actions in real time as under normal conditions — there is a logical dissonance due to the mismatch between the location of the subjects’ eyes in the virtual environment, and what these eyes see. Effectively, the user is seeing inside a pair of “portal” binoculars (HMD), which display the light from, if not another dimension, then at least a few feet away. And this will be a part of the point.

What is interesting about this experiment is not necessarily simply that the users feel present where they do not reside physically, but how the distance is only a few feet off. The users feel present right outside of their bodies. The situation is similar, the body and the environment is there, but everything is a bit off. What is interesting to investigate then, is how the body adapts to this. Will it accept that it now controls its body from a third person perspective, similarly to how Stratton’s subjects got used to seeing the world upside down?

What they studied was basically whether this change of perspective had an impact on where the users felt embodied. To investigate this, the researchers stroked the subjects as they did in the Rubber Hand Illusion, except at their backs — so that it was perceivable by them. The question is then where this physical feeling will be attributed to — how will the phenomena of the subjective experience present themselves to the subjects?

Out of Body experiences can be achieved virtually by using sensory impressions from other locations, for instance five meters behind you as in the experiment by Ehrson (2007). You can then effectively look at yourself from the outside.

First of all, to be clear on this — the sensory data of being stroked will initially be provided by the nerves in the physical shoulder of the user. The problem of the brain, however, is that the shoulder is out of sight — blocked by the Head-Mounted Display. There is, however, the visual impression of a shoulder on a person standing in front — being scratched in exactly the same way. Although the nerve-endings definitely feel the stroking, the problem is that where this feeling will be placed in our subjective experience is not the responsibility of the shoulder, but rather the brain. And, as the placement of the physical feeling in the bodily self-consciousness is largely dependent on vision for coordinates, what will happen? How will the brain fix this sensory discord?

In this beautifully written article by The New Yorker, its author Rothman describes one of the co-authors of the research paper, Thomas Metzinger’s, own experience undergoing the experimental conditions:

Metzinger could feel the stroking, but the body to which it was happening seemed to be situated in front of him. He felt a strange sensation, as though he were drifting in space, or being stretched between the two bodies. He wanted to jump entirely into the body before him, but couldn’t. He seemed marooned outside of himself. It wasn’t quite an out-of-body experience, but it was proof that, using computer technology, the self-model could easily be manipulated. A new area of research had been created: virtual embodiment.”

Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?” — The New Yorker has a brilliant, long, read on Virtual Embodiment that features interviews with VR and Consciousness researchers Prof. Mel Slater and Prof. Thomas Metzinger.

Phantom Pain

Another curious potential effect of Virtual Embodiment, is the possibility of phantom sensory impressions as well. Handling virtual objects while being embodied, for instance, may convince your body to expect pain or touch — and so this is, somehow, actively generated. Because of this, VR may be a way to study how phantom pain is created, and further how it can be alleviated. For instance, several studies show how VR can embody a subject missing a leg in a body with two legs, similarly to traditional mirror therapy treatment, which is effective in reducing phantom pain. Again — what may be most interesting here is the possibility of systematically creating the phenomena and studying it afterwards. For instance, as Metzinger is quoted on in The New Yorker’s article, it may be supposed that phantom pain is created by a body model not corresponding to the physical reality. This will be the case for phantom pain in VR: it is not based on the physical reality, you are only relating to a virtual reality instead. Similarly, those those with real phantom pain may also be relating to a certain kind of “virtual reality”, but rather one in the format of their skewed narratives — maintained by their minds instead of a computer.

That the narrative, worldview and consciousness that our brain’s experience and generate is often not the best match with reality is not something new. As for Matrise, these concepts reminds us of the conclusion from our three-series entry towards a metaphysical standpoint on VR, in which we discussed VR as rather examplifying of our abstracting tendencies of mind. These entries can be read at Matrise, and were called: 1) On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency, 2) Heidegger’s Virtual Reality, and 3) The Mind as Medium.

Virtual Embodiment for Social Good

Now that we have discussed the concept of Virtual Embodiment, it may be natural to discuss what this knowledge can be used for. As discussed already, generating experiments in VR that hacks our self models, may provide useful knowledge on the structure of our self-consciousness. Apart from this general knowledge, some may also have practical utilisation in applied VR for specific scenarios.

Racial Bias

A very exciting paper that describes work utilizing virtual embodiment, is one by Banakou, Hanumanthu and Slater. In the project, they embodied White people in Black bodies, and found that this significantly reduced their implicit racial bias! The article can be found and read in its entirety here (abstract available for all).

Domestic Violence

Another interesting project by Seinfeld et. al, is one in which male offenders of domestic violence became embodied in the role of a female victim in a virtual scenario. At first in the experiment, the male subject is familiarized with his new, female, virtual body and the new virtual environment. When the body ownership illusion, or virtual embodiment, has been achieved, a virtual male enters the room and becomes verbally abusive. All this time, the subject can see his own female body reflected in a mirror, with all his actions corresponding to his. After a while, the virtual male starts to physically throw around things and start to appear violent. Eventually it escalates and he gets closer into what feels like the subjects personal space, and appear threatening.

They write:

Our results revealed that offenders have a significantly lower ability to recognize fear in female faces compared to controls, with a bias towards classifying fearful faces as happy. After being embodied in a female victim, offenders improved their ability to recognize fearful female faces and reduced their bias towards recognizing fearful faces as happy”

The article can be read in its entirety at ResearchGate.

Staying Updated in the field of Virtual Embodiment

Research on Virtual Embodiment is happening continuously. To stay updated on this area of VR research, I enjoy following Mel Slater, Mavi Sanches-Vives and Thomas Metzinger on Twitter. Last but not least, I would stay updated on Virtual Bodyworks at Twitter, of which both Sanchez-Vives and Slater are co-founders of.


N.B: This entry lies at the centre of Matrise’s interests, and we are planning on writing several entries on this topic further in philosophical directions. Have any ideas or want to contribute? Please contact us.

Literature list

 

 

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Virtual Reality Journalism

Journalism is largely defined by which medium it uses to convey its message. The last hundred years, it has moved from medium to medium: from text to radio, and further from photographs to video. With each new medium the fidelity of the message it is providing is steadily increasing. This is perhaps especially clear now with the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies for journalistic purposes. By using 360° stereoscopic (3D) cameras, we are getting very close to capturing subjective realities at given points in spacetime.

The Ultimate Empathy Machine

In his Ted Talk, Chris Milk describes the potential of VR for creating “the ultimate empathy machine”, which later has been the subject for extensive debate. The message is that we may be more empathetic towards others if we can “literally”, or at least virtually, view the situation through their eyes. Many journalistic projects have focused on refugees or war zones, such as the stories “Fight for Fallujah” and “The Displaced“. In these stories, the camera works as the eyes of the observer, as the screen in the VR goggles is mounted directly on to the eyes. The user is presented to the story through a first person perspective, and may feel present in the story as if he or she is actually being transferred to the environment.  This presence to the stories, and the following perceived realism, is what is believed to be able to increase empathy in the viewers. Of this reason also, Google News Lab’s Ethnographic Study on Immersive Journalism  describes VR news as more fit for the term “storyliving” rather than “storytelling”, indicating that the user feels a part of the story that is being conveyed.

‘See for yourself’: Is the NYT VR pitching their VR production by indicating that you can see the situation yourself, instead of adhering to the mediated version by a journalist who’ve been there?

Critics of VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, or as capable of delivering “storyliving”, say that you can not possibly know how it is to be in a refugee camp while lying on the couch a friday evening with your VR goggles and a glass of wine. And, of course, you can not. It may, however, prove to be a more empathetic instrument than a regular video as it may seem more real and thus affect us differently.  It is no wonder that it may seem more ‘real’, when it is presented in the ‘format of reality’. Some do agree, however, and believe that it may have the power to make viewers more empathetic – nevertheless, they think that it may be unethical to use it as such. Should journalists have this power, to distribute realities to news consumers, and by new technologies we are not used to, affect people this strongly? These critics may be afraid of the “brainwashing” potential of the technology. It is easier to distance one self from a 21 inch screen than it is to distance yourself from an encompassing, immersive virtual reality you inhibit. Perhaps the most crucial question is whether it is brainwashing if what you are showed in fact is real?

Fake News

This brings us to another point of VR Journalism: how hard it is to manipulate the content. The journalist can not hide behind the camera. There is no artificial lighting or too narrow segment of the shot. The camera shoots in 360° horizontally and vertically — it is a totally observant witness at that given space and time.  In a sense, news in 360° is far less directed than in traditional flat videos: the viewer chooses which part of the video he or she wants to see. Naturally, the journalist is still an active role which chooses where to shoot, and does the final edit, however, it is a great shift from traditonal video footage. As we all know, during the last few years the concept of ‘fake news’ and mistrust in the media has arisen. The transparency that shooting with 360° 3D offers may help combat this. Perhaps also Journalism has to adapt to these changes, and rather deliver (immersive) content on which its readers themselves can decide and conclude upon. Euronews, one of the largest European news agencies, argues that this is why they have produced several 360° videos each week for now two years. In the VR session of the Digital World Conference in 2016, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Platforms, Duncan Hooper, stated they “want[ed] to let [the users] make their own decisions, not tell them what they should be watching, not to tell them what they should be thinking”.

It is, however, rather naïve to believe that immersive content alone can deliver objective truths — no matter how close the images correspond to reality. When the videos themselves lack in clear message or narrative, it is natural to imagine how they may rather be used as building bricks for constituting a narrative elsewhere. Besides, imagine the concrete example of the news coverage of the Israel and Palestine conflict. In this case, we may ask whether the journalist will choose to show immersive footage of a knife attack in Jerusalem, or deadly shots by the border patrol in Gaza? Both would be correct to show, but by this example, we see that to a certain extent, in the problem of news objectivity and fake news, it is not a problem of facts vs. non-facts; but which facts are focussed on. Immersive Journalism is no silver bullet in this regard, however, that is not to say that it may not find a natural place in news coverage. 

VR Journalism at the University of Bergen

During the spring of 2018, I taught 20 undergraduate students in VR Programming, 360° video shooting- and editing and photogrammetry. The aim was that the students should be able to create their own prototype delivering Immersive Journalism. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we did not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. This is often called ‘Innovation Pedagogy’. The end result have been four brilliant prototypes, that was presented at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. We discuss two of these here. Interested in the other two? These are mentioned in an entry where we go more in depth, philosophically, on the concept of Experience Machines.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Conclusion

Journalism through the medium/technology of VR has great potential. Immersive Journalism is still in its infancy, but the projects done so far shows promising. Much will depend on VR goggles entering into people’s homes, as with any other technology. For insights into where we are in the terrain of VR technology in 2018 — take a look at our entry discussing the History of Virtual Reality.

Literature list


Are you interested in more reading on this subject?

This executive summary on “Virtual Reality Journalism” by Owen & Pitt at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is one of the first reports on VR Journalism.

Further, the report by Doyle, Gelman & Gill at the Knight Foundation is a good background read.

Finally, the Reuters report by Zillah Watson is more recent and sheds light on the more current situation of the medium for journalistic purposes. This report  illuminates a change we have seen recently, with the use of consumer/”prosumer” cameras for easier production by newsroom. This will definitely turn out, as with traditional cameras, to be a prerequisite for the adoption of this medium across Journalism as whole. When it is easier to produce content in 360° video, more newsrooms will do it.

As the reports by The Knight Foundation, The Tow Center, and further Sirkunnen et. al indicate, Immersive Journalism has not been so prevalent in less-affluent media houses. We may know of VR stories such as 6×9 by The Guardian, but have not necessarily heard of any from our local newspaper. This may change in the near future due to better consumer products.