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Page last updated at 09:06 GMT, Friday, 20 August 2010 10:06 UK

Virtual reality tackles tough questions

By David Reid
BBC Click

A male volunteer
Men are learning to empathise with women using virtual reality

Virtual reality is allowing scientists to ask difficult questions about human behaviour that were previously not possible or were thought too unethical.

A Spanish team has designed a trial that allows men to step inside the body of a woman subjected to violence.

Meanwhile scientists in London are simulating a controversial experiment from the 1960s in which people were persuaded to inflict pain on others.

The original experiments were condemned as immoral and too traumatic.

At Barcelona University, male volunteers have experienced life as a virtual young girl and then separately, witnessed violence towards her.

On returning to live the girl's virtual life, the men empathized with her more than usual, feeling scared and insecure themselves.

"I want to know whether you can use virtual reality, not just to transform the place you are in, but also to transform your very self," said Mel Slater, lead researcher at the Catalan Institute of Research and Advanced Studies.

"If you see yourself in a virtual body, which moves as you do, how will this affect your behaviour?"

Virtual cruelty

Male volunteers in the Spanish experiment see a virtual room with a woman in front of them caressing their arm. Meanwhile, the illusion is reinforced by someone actually running their fingers down their arm in real life.

Volunteer Joan Llobera discusses life as a virtual girl with researcher Mel Slater

Looking in the mirror, the person looking back is a young girl wearing a skirt.

A little later, things take a sinister turn. The volunteer is shown a view hovering above the scene instead of acting as the girl. The previously affectionate woman inexplicably lashes out, slapping the girl twice on the face.

The idea is that having previously been the girl, the volunteer feels the shock of what has happened more personally.

Mr Slater described how the technique could be used to tackle racism and abuse.

Even if you knew you were only giving electric shocks to a virtual character, would you still respond with stress and anxiety?
Mel Slater, Researcher

"In a kind of empathic way, we can learn what it is like to be the victim of racism.

"Or understand what it is like to experience abuse in different ways. And therefore especially for the abusers, they may learn what sort of damage they are inflicting on others from a psychological point of view."

According to Bernard Spanlang, researcher in virtual reality at the University of Barcelona, this works even if the quality of the virtual reality is pretty rudimentary.

"The visual quality is actually not very important. What is more important is that the virtual reality reacts in a way that you would expect it to.

"So even if you render the scene in wire-frame, based on triangles without any shading, in experiments people react as if they were in that place."

Electric shocks

Virtual reality is also being used to replicate a psychological experiment into the darker parts of the human character where real experiments would be too traumatic for those taking part and not allowed on ethical grounds.

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram of Yale University caused uproar with his experiments into how people responded to an authority figure, finding most people if pressed were prepared to repeatedly give an electric shock to another person.

The scenario was of course fictitious using actors pretending to be in pain, but the experiments were criticised as unethical because they were based on deception.

Participant in electric shock experiment
In the 1960s, volunteers believed they were delivering real electric shocks

Mel Slater has replicated these experiments using virtual reality, this time at University College London.

The person getting the shocks might be virtual, but the subject is still put in a moral quandary and their emotional reaction is real.

"What we are interested in is, even knowing that you were only giving electric shocks to a virtual character, would you still respond with stress and anxiety and the kind of symptoms that were shown by Milgram's original subjects?

"The answer was yes. Obviously to a lower level, but people still experienced anxiety that you could measure with physiological measuring devices.

"This virtual reality technology opens up the door for studying - in an ethically fine way - these kinds of issues."

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