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Virtual Reality Avatars in Research

By David Redmond

Virtual Reality (VR) creates an immersive environment (Cummings & Bailenson, 2016). When people are in a well-designed virtual environment (VE), they feel as though they are really there and that their interaction with the environment is real (Barberia et al., 2018; Cummings & Bailenson, 2016; Slater et al., 2009; Slater & Wilbur, 1997). We can also induce embodiment whereby the user feels as though the body of the virtual avatar they are using is their own body (Kilteni et al., 2012). As such, VR allows researchers to present highly customisable environments to participants and examine how they interact with them, knowing that it will be similar to how they would react in real life. This is useful for studying scenarios that are difficult, impossible, or dangerous to replicate in real life (Barberia et al., 2018) . By manipulating different aspects of a VR experience, be it the tasks involved, the setting, or the characters present, we can explore how and why people react to many different situations and experiences. In this post, we pay special attention to the use of avatars and virtual agents in VR research.

An avatar refers to the player-controlled character, whereas a virtual agent is a computer- controlled character, acting how the researchers have designed. In this way, we can customise how the player is represented in the VE, how the virtual agents interact with them and observe the resulting actions and feelings of the player.

Dehumanisation or discrimination can occur due to perceived differences between the self and an outgroup, such as members of a different race or individuals with a mental health condition (Holtz & Wagner, 2011) . The act of perspective taking can help increase acknowledgement of and reduce these feelings and expressions (Peck et al., 2013; Wijma et al., 2018) . In recent years, VR has been utilised for this purpose as, through embodiment, we can give a participant ownership over a body different from their own. For example, researchers have placed participants in the body of a black avatar and examined how it influenced implicit racial bias and explicit attitudes towards African Americans (e.g. Groom et al., 2009; Peck et al., 2013). In a similar vein, VR is being investigated in areas such as dementia care to give healthcare workers a sense of how their patients experience the world, with the hope of fostering empathy and promoting more understanding (e.g. Wijma et al., 2018).

Training is an area where virtual agents are being researched to improve methodologies. Training and assessment of novice therapists often involve using specially trained actors as patients to mimic real symptoms of various mental health conditions (Kenny et al., 2007). Difficulties with this method include the low availability of appropriate actors and high costs. To reduce this cost, researchers are designing and testing virtual agents which could be used to replace actors to complete training and assessment (Kenny et al., 2007; Parsons et al., 2009) . The inverse is also being explored; whereby provisional assessments of new patients are conducted by a virtual therapist (Devault et al., 2014) . The virtual agent is designed to read movements and facial cues from the patient and respond accordingly to create a safe environment for patients to disclose any difficulties or symptoms they have been experiencing.

There are many professions where hands-on, trial and error training are essential but difficult to provide safely. Substitute methods, such as observing an expert supervisor or using actors to recreate the scenario, are useful but have shortcomings. In a similar way that flight simulators are one part of a stepped approach to training pilots to man full passenger airlines, VR may become part of a holistic training package in professions working with vulnerable people or using dangerous equipment such as engineers, surgeons, and therapists. This would provide more realistic hands-on experience for trainees without putting patients at risk or their mistakes.

Despite the great potential of VR for research, researchers need to exercise caution and perspective when developing methods that use VR (Slater et al., 2020) . For example, I have outlined the benefits of using virtual patients in therapists’ training. However, basing all a trainee’s early knowledge of practice on standardised virtual patients designed to mimic common symptoms of a disorder could create or reinforce stereotypes and biases towards actual patients when they are fully qualified. It may promote the notion that all individuals with these conditions are similar or the same, which is one of the main contributors to mental health stigma (Link & Phelan, 2001) .

All of this considered, VR offers a very useful tool for researchers to utilise in psychology research. I hope I have given a glimpse at the broad scope of potential applications available.


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