Illusory body ownership in VR – coaching yourself with a virtual avatar

May 28, 2018

Virtual reality (VR) technology has been around for a very long time, environments and devices recognisable as the VR equipment we see today, have been around for at least thirty years. However, in recent years good quality equipment has become affordably inexpensive, leading to its broad scale application in many industrial and research organisations. VR is already being used to train assembly-line operatives, brain surgeons, educate students and much more.

From a research point of view, one of the interesting psychological effects that can be exploited is “illusory body ownership”, which is the illusion of owning a part of a body or an entire body other than one’s own. This can take a simple form without VR as in the “rubber hand illusion”.

The participant sees a rubber hand placed in front of her, while her real hand is concealed from view. The experimenter strokes both hands at the same time, and after some time the participant perceives the fake hand as if it were her own hand (Botvinick & Cohen 1998).

Multisensory perception can influence how we perceive our own body, when you hold your hand out it is generally thought that you know that it is there because of information you get from your muscles and skin etc, but what the rubber hand illusion shows is that that can be overridden by visual information.

Using a combination of VR and full body motion capture, Osimo et al created a perception for participants that they were having a conversation with Dr Sigmund Freud, but they were themselves controlling the actions and verbal responses of Dr Freud (virtual body ownership). We have an almost constant inner speech (talking to ourselves inside our own heads) and up to a point this is considered important for self-awareness.

What Osimo et al demonstrated was that people were able to solve their own problems much better when talking to themselves using the virtual body of Dr Freud, than with their conventional inner speech. This reconfirms the value of the external point of view, which can be obtained by using a career, executive or life coach or by oneself in the virtual body of Dr Freud or indeed anyone but oneself.

Virtual body of Dr Freud study

Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud - a virtual body ownership paradigm for self counselling.

The Careers Advisers in Oxford had an all-day session with a coach with the general theme of the “Thinking Environment” as described in Nancy Kline’s book “Time to think: Listening to ignite the human mind”.

They did exercises where the coach said nothing for 5 minutes, simply responded with body language and murmurs of support and allowed the coachee to just think aloud - to some impressive effect - it turns out. They also explored the role of coach in identifying underlying limiting assumptions and uncovering alternative liberating assumptions by the use of incisive questions.

One assumption encountered frequently among employees, is that a face to face meeting is better than a Skype or FaceTime meeting. But studies on around 3500 Skype appointments have shown that so long as the technology works, the virtual meeting works very well. Consistent with this, researchers into VR/AR have proven that the ability of people to own a virtual body is not dependent on the quality of the visuals, cartoon-like visuals work just as well as high quality graphics.

As a final example, a recent study by Seinfeld et al in Barcelona used immersive virtual reality to induce a full body ownership illusion that allows offenders to be in the body of a victim of domestic abuse. A group of male domestic violence offenders and a control group without a history of violence experienced a virtual scene of abuse in first person perspective.

During the virtual encounter, the participants’ real bodies were replaced with a life-sized virtual female body that moved synchronously with their own real movements. Participants' emotion recognition skills were assessed before and after the virtual experience. Their results revealed that offenders have a significantly lower ability to recognise 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 recognise fearful female faces and reduced their bias towards recognising fearful faces as happy. You can watch a video from this study below, note at the end, when the virtual aggressor enters the personal space of the victim, the participant is forced to look up to the taller male's face, anecdotally it is at this point that the male domestic violence offenders had their most significant learning moment, an insight that would be difficult to recreate without VR.

Article originally published in the Careers Service Newsletter for Alumni, by Dr Mike Moss.