Can bonding with your virtual self alter your perceptions?

May 12, 2013

Game avatar with a backpack (credit: S. Shyam Sundar, Penn State)

If you create and modify your own virtual reality avatars, could what happens to these alter egos influence how you perceive virtual environments?

Penn State researchers found this question relevant to designing more realistic and immersive virtual reality exercises and games. They assigned random avatars to one group of participants, but allowed another group to customize their own avatars.

When placed in a virtual environment with three hills of different heights and angles of incline, participants who customized their avatars perceived those hills as higher and steeper than participants who were assigned avatars by the researchers.

Half of the participants had avatars with backpacks. Those who had customized their avatar overestimated the amount of calories it would take to hike up the hill if their custom avatar.

“You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself,” said S. Shyam Sundar, 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.”

Sundar said people with disabilities may feel more empowered designing their own avatars to have physical aids to navigate a virtual environment. And 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 at whether altering more elements of the users’ avatar will lead to more extensive changes in how people perceive virtual environments.

The Korea Science and Engineering Foundation supported this work.