Ever wonder what it would be like to live as a spider or fly like a bird?
Psychologists are working to understand how VR can be used to transport individuals into different bodies, and if it is possible to do so with animal avatars.
“Virtual reality setups are particularly suited to create a tight bond between players and their avatars up to a degree where we start perceiving the virtual representation as our own body,” said Andrey Krekhov, a member of the projects research team based out of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany. “We hypothesize that such an illusion of virtual body ownership (IVBO) has a particularly high, yet overlooked potential for nonhumanoid avatars.”
They wanted to test the limits of a human buy-in; how different and unfamiliar can a virtual body be before we no longer believe it is our own? What are the benefits of playing in VR as an animal?
Their method was straightforward and preliminary. They surveyed 37 volunteers and studied their reaction to the illusion, measuring how they responded in VR and asking them to rate their experiences. They looked closely at three animals in particular —a scorpion, a rhino, and a bird— to explore possible avatar controls and game mechanics based on specific animal abilities.
Krekhov and his team found that animal embodiment could even be more believable, and more enjoyable than controlling the human form.
“Our experiment shows that even spiders, despite having a skeleton that significantly differs from ours, offer a similar degree of the illusion of virtual body ownership compared to humanoid avatars,” said the team. They found that bats and spiders ranked overall higher than the human form.
“The bat behaved exactly how I expected,” said one participant, “and it was intriguing to precisely control my wing movements because it appeared realistic to me.”
Krekhov and the other researchers see tremendous potential for their findings in VR gaming.
“In our opinion, incorporating animals as player avatars into VR has the potential to unveil a set of novel game mechanics and maybe even lead to a “beastly” VR game genre,” reports the research team. “Utilizing the abilities of animals such as flying as a bird or crawling as a spider could be significantly more engaging in VR due to the increased presence compared to non-VR games.”
They also saw benefit in using their findings as fuel for the “empathy machine,” utilizing animal avatars as a way to better understand their behavior.