Monday, June 6, 2011

Your brain in a virtual collaboration environment, the transcript

We recently posted our podcast interview with Jim Blascovich, Ph.D., Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Co-Director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

But if you prefer reading over listening, you're in luck because we've got the transcript for you today. Give it a look-see to learn Dr. Blascovich's latest findings about interacting in virtual environments.

You'll also get a peek inside his new book, "Infinite Reality," which he wrote with Jeremy Bailenson, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab and Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University.

Janelle: Greetings, everyone. I'm Janelle Kozyra, your host for a ProtonMedia podcast. Today I am joined by Jim Blascovich, who is a Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Co-Director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

He is also the co-author of “Infinite Reality,” which he wrote with Jeremy Bailenson, and right now Jim is on sabbatical at Stanford. Welcome to our podcast, Jim. Good to have you with us.

Jim: Thank you. Good to be here.

Janelle: So let's give our listeners a little bit of a background on you and what you study as a psychologist.

Jim: Well, I'm a social psychologist and a neuro-scientist and I studied many things over my career. But currently I'm studying social influence processes, or how people interact. Things like persuasion and conformity, training and learning, etc., within digital virtual environments, especially immersive ones -- that is, those driven by digital technology that places people in environments where the visual, auditory, and other sense information is controlled by digital equipment such as head-mounted displays and audio generation and all those sorts of things. I like to say we put people in the matrix.

Janelle: And another phrase that you talk about frequently is the virtual revolution. Tell me how you define the virtual revolution.

Jim: Well, in the sense of the subtitle to our book where that phrase appears, we mean a tipping point between non-digital and digital technology as a predominant media information technology.

Janelle: And why do you think that matters?

Jim: Well, communication media technologies have evolved over time from drum beats through storytelling; the visual arts, such as painting and sculpture; dramatic arts to manuscripts; photographs and films; radio and television; and now digital technologies. All of these have had such an impact on the expansion of human interaction that they change society and social institutions.

So the printing press did that. Pictures and movies did that. And the bundle of digital communication technologies we have now such as e-mail and social networking, etc., and digital virtual technology are doing it as well. Digital virtual reality makes it possible to be in each other's presence in meaningful, even naturalistic ways, without being together physically.

Janelle: Why do you think this revolution is happening today?

Jim: Well, it's just the progression of things and progress in science and technology and that's where we are today. And it will have a big impact in near future and who knows what happens after that.

Janelle: So let's start exploring your new book, "Infinite Reality." What's the premise behind it?

Jim: Well, I think the major premise behind our book that we write about is a variety of ways is that digital virtual reality technologies are changing how people, how societies and how cultures behave and operate. Like all fundamental technological shifts, there are good aspects, bad aspects, positive and negative aspects. What we refer to as the yin and yang of the technology.

Janelle: And one of the topics your book discusses is what happens in the brain when we're having a virtual experience or interacting in a virtual environment versus when we are interacting in the real world. And a lot of listeners and readers of the ProtonMedia blog are in the training and learning sector, and I think it would be interesting to apply that to what their day-to-day is like. So how do you compare learning in a virtual setting to learning in a real-world setting? What's going on in our brains in the two different environments?

Jim: Well, as the virtual better and better approximates the real in terms of sensory perceptual information that the brain is getting, the brain and mind find it more difficult to distinguish the difference. What's going on in the brain is pretty much the same, whether you're in an immersive virtual world or whether you're in a natural world or physical world. Keep in mind that people daydream some 2,000 times a day and they dream four to six times a night.

We cannot say that so-called real environment is totally compelling anymore than so-called virtual environments, especially if you consider some very impactful dreams we all have. But there are certain things that can be done more easily in digital/virtual environments to facilitate learning and training, such as what we call non-zero sum gaze, where, for example, a teacher's avatar can maintain eye contact from the student's points of view simultaneously. Everyone can sit in their ideal seats, everyone can explore, be part of an accurate historical recreation of past events, etc.

So the digital is actually going beyond what's in the physical world in some ways, allowing for things like virtual time travel, experiencing historical events by doing so. So we don't think that the brain acts all that differently whether it's in a virtual interaction, the digital virtual interaction, or actually in a face-to-face physical interaction.

Janelle: So then what does that mean for how we train and actually transfer knowledge in a virtual environment versus a real world setting?

Jim: Well, this has been going on the longest in the military, and the military provides some great examples. So virtual reality technology has been used for training forever, relatively forever. Just as in the past century, in the 20th century it started expanding with the invention of, for example, the flight simulator. Although the flight simulators in the early days weren't digital or weren't digitally controlled, they were still simulators. They were still virtual.

This past weekend the Navy Seals who heroically destroyed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan trained with a full mock-up of his compound. That can also be done digitally. Indeed, there's something called digital, virtual Iraq that has been created by a cooperative effort in the military, the Institute for Creative Technology at the University of Southern California in Hollywood. And it's proven invaluable to the military in Iraq for many, many reasons.

Janelle: How would you apply that in an enterprise setting?

Jim: Well, I think there's a lot like -- there's a lot of ways in which we can do that. I think that the first thing that might be necessary is for the industrial or business settings to prepare for a shift from company IT, internal organizations, to virtual technology internal organizations, because it's a big shift. It's not just the technology.

Now it really has to do with understanding the technology, how people think, how people behave, etc. And there will be bumps along the way. But at least in large corporations I think that there really is going to be, and I think in many companies it's already started, a shift from IT being an internal organization to one we might call VT, or virtual technology for organizations.

Janelle: And if we think about how we interact in a virtual setting versus in real life, we have social norms. In the real world you might walk into an office, you shake hands with someone, you greet them, you make eye contact. That's a typical social norm. How do our social norms change when we're in a virtual environment? Have we developed specific social norms for how we behave in a virtual setting?

Jim: I think it seems like a lot. We like to talk about how multiple personality disorder, or what's sometimes called multiple dissociative disorder these days. Multiple personality doesn't seem to be a disorder online. People can take on whatever identity or personality they desire, in Second Life. For example, something like 60 percent or 70 percent of the avatars are females, but only 40 percent of the users are.

Obesity isn't the epidemic in VR that it is in the natural world, so one of the big, big changes in terms of norms is that people can be and are much less inhibited online than in virtual worlds. That said, sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes not so good.

Janelle: So let's explore that a little bit more, because I think that's really interesting to talk about the advantages and the disadvantages of virtual environments. So let's first start with, in what respects do you see virtual environments being better than the real world? And you kind of touched on this a little bit before where you were talking about the non-zero sum gaze and people feeling a little bit less inhibited in a virtual setting. What else do you see as an advantage?

Jim: Well, I spoke about the yin and yang of things before. Digital virtual environments range in terms of the technologies from less to more immersive environments. And they've brought people closer together in terms of psychological and social, or even apparent physical distance.

I think humans being humans, virtual reality makes it far easier to do good such as to organize help for victims of natural disasters, bring people with common interests closer together, help geographically separated members of social groups, such as families, work groups, etc., stay together. But it also makes it far easier to do bad things, like promote and plan terrorist acts, steal identities, run Ponzi schemes, etc.

Janelle: So let's talk about that a little bit more, some of the disadvantages, then, that you see when you look at virtual environments versus the real world. Where are virtual environments not as good as the real world?

Jim: Well, certainly in the domain of actual physical touch, physical closeness. The technologies for the other senses are very well developed and very, very convincing or immersive. For example, when people are speaking together over the phone as we are right now and somebody asked you who are you talking to, you would say Jim. But you're not really talking to Jim, you're talking to a digitized rendering of my voice in your real time.

So we could do that with audio. We can do it with video now really, really well, starting to approach about the same level. But in terms of the other senses, not so much. We can do smell although not a lot of people are attending to that. But touch and haptics is, I think, the big challenge right now technologically in terms of virtual reality and that means that what humans derive in social interactions and actual physical contact is not quite there yet.

Janelle: Do you foresee us being able to replicate that somehow virtually?

Jim: Well, we can do it now except that it takes almost a special device for every type of haptic or touch situation. So when we talk about touch, just feeling surfaces can be done. Just lifting something and feeling the weight of what one lifts can be done. Trying to put together a puzzle can be done.

All these things can be done but it's really in isolation from each other and the particular environments in which those things are used are very, very specifically defined, so there's no great technology that will allow us to do all as well as our brains and our bodies, and I don't know when it's going to come.

Janelle: What do you think enterprise organizations can take away from some of your latest findings and the things that you have detailed in your book, "Infinite Reality?" Let's say they're using virtual environment technology in their business maybe for training or something along those lines. What would they take away? What would they need to know from your findings that can help them have success using virtual environments?

Jim: Well, keeping it simple, I would say they should think immersive as in the kind of virtual technology where face-to-face interactions among groups of people can occur much like in the physical world but without the actual physical travel. And that would allow communication to take place naturalistically via spoken language and non-verbal communication. In other words, where the technology itself is just part of the background.

The cost of such technology is decreasing rapidly and in any event are easily offset by the business and societal costs of travel that are saved. I think this will increase the efficiency and efficacy of management and training as well as marketing and sales. We're not talking about science fiction here.

I think when we keeping people behaving in virtual worlds without any particular special interfaces like joysticks and buttons and those types of things, I think that's where it's going and I would suggest to businesses that this is what they aim for if they're setting up training scenarios, if they're setting up virtual retail outlets.

Janelle: So let's look at the future a little bit more, then. Where do you see virtual environment technology taking us in, say, the next two to five years?

Jim: Well, the tracking and display technology will become much cheaper and widespread. We went from game platforms to the Wii which was a big, big improvement, and now we have the Microsoft Connect. They're already down that path and display devices including non-obtrusive 3-D glasses or spectacles and other will become available. There are even video screens that produce a 3-D image between the person and the screen without having to wear any eyeglasses at all.

So I think that the technology is really getting widespread. I think some of the necessary technology for what we talk about is already out there and it's being diffused throughout the world, particularly the Microsoft Connect and the display devices will follow quickly and people are already developing unbelievable applications for this device.

Janelle: So in what area do you see virtual environment technology having the most promise?

Jim: Well, I think it's kind of moved from the military applications and recreation and games where it is today to social networking. Right now there's more than 2 billion people networked throughout the world, and that, of course, is growing.

And I think we can expect half the population within a year or two. And I think it's going to migrate from those kind of applications more and more to business and commerce.

Janelle: So then how should companies be reacting to this change right now? Should they be embracing it? Should they be putting certain things in place today to prepare to adopt it? What should their attitudes be?

Jim: Well, I think they should be excited and I think they should not bet against it and, as I said before, I think the major concrete thing to do is really consider a shift from simple company IT internal organizations to VT ones. And with some bumps along the way, they'll wonder how they ever got along without it.

Janelle: Great. Thank you, Jim. Appreciate you taking some time out with us today.

Jim: Oh, my pleasure.

Janelle: Once again, for our listeners out there, that is Jim Blascovich, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Co-Director of the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

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