Encounters in a virtual world elicit powerful emotional reactions.

Ivan Sutherland, who developed the first virtual reality system, dreamed of a world created by a computer as early as the 1960s. In his vision, virtual objects would feel as realistic as real-world ones.

But it took decades of technological advancement in display and motion detection technology to bring this virtual utopia as close to a breakthrough as it is now. However, 3D animation is expensive and work-intensive, which is slowing down its entry into the consumer market. But it is only a matter of time when virtual reality equipment becomes accessible to everyone.

Virtual reality will change the way we consume media. We will watch the news and see the destruction of a natural disaster reflected around us, and play games where we can hear the wind in the trees while a wild beast stalks us behind our back. 

A human character depicted in  virtual reality elicits the same emotional reactions in us as a real person.

We may meet our friends for a walk around the African savannah, even though in reality we are sitting alone on our couch. 

In face-to-face interaction, people react not only to words, but also to how the other person behaves, moves and gestures. One would assume the situation would be different if we were talking to a virtual character controlled by an algorithm. However, it seems that a human character depicted in  virtual reality elicits the same emotional reactions in us as a real person. 

The three-dimensional field of observation is created by tricking the sensory processes that underlie depth perception. This technology has been used since the 1960s in auto manufacturing, military training and, to some degree, in the treatment of phobias, but currently the technology is being developed primarily for the purposes of gaming and communication. 

One psychologically interesting aspect of this technological leap is how strongly the immersive virtual experiences impact our emotions. Whether we are playing a violent game, watching a dramatic newscast or meeting a friend, our simulated presence at the scene increases our alertness. It makes emotional reactions much more intense than what we experience in traditional computer-assisted activities. 

For example, violent virtual reality games may increase the risk of violent real-world behaviour in players more than conventional videogames.

The intensity of the emotions is surprising, because virtual reality involves just a small change made to our perception: a visual feed is linked to the user’s field of vision and the orientation of their head.

The emotional intensity of virtual reality is a guarantee of greater consumer interest. This is good to bear in mind when deciding on age limits for games. For example, violent virtual reality games may increase the risk of violent real-world behaviour in players more than conventional videogames.  

Even tiny social cues, such as the appearance or gestures of a virtual character, influence the user’s heartbeat, the sweating of their palms and their central nervous system.

This means that even minor stimuli can be used to study the way virtual interaction influences emotions.

In our recent study published in Nature, research subjects with virtual reality headsets were seated facing a virtual human character. The research subjects were also given a glove that provided sensory feedback when the character reached out to shake their hand. 

Many flinched at the first touch from the virtual character. The expression on the face of the virtual character changed how the research subjects experienced the touch – how strong or pleasant it felt. It was particularly surprising to find that the expressions changed the way the brain processed the sensory stimulus. This means that the expression on the face of the person touching influences the way the person touched experiences the touch at a very basic level, for example, how strong the touch feels on the skin.

The impact of the gestures and appearance of a virtual character is not restricted to sensory perception, but extends to behaviour. In a study conducted by an American research team, researchers found that the skin colour of the character influenced how close to them the research subjects were willing to stand at a simulated bus stop. In our research, we have found that if a computer-generated character smiles and touches the subjects in a friendly way, the subjects are more likely to agree to unfair offers of money. 

Gender-related characteristics also influence the way we react to emotional stimuli from a virtual character, such as a smile or a touch. A touch from a male character is more likely to elicit reactions that have to do with the perception of threat than a touch from a female one. For example, a touch from a male character slows down the heartbeat of the research subject, particularly if the person has a reserved personality or if both the character and subject are men. This is part of the orienting response, which has been found to be linked to the identification of a threat. 

Virtual reality offers completely new tools for human-machine interaction. Augmented reality, in which virtual 3D objects are reflected into a real-world environment, will also provide unprecedented opportunities.

Visions such as this virtual maid are still at the concept stage, but their impact on social relations and emotions can already be studied.

One day when you come home after a long day of work, you may be greeted in your living room by a virtual human character, the user interface to your home. 

Such a virtual character could regulate your home’s energy consumption, ask you about your day and leave messages for your family members. Instead of typing search terms into a browser, you could directly ask your home assistant your questions, who would react to your query with empathy.

Visions such as this virtual maid are still at the concept stage, but their impact on social relations and emotions can already be studied. 

When we examine our relations to artificial physical beings, we can also study the regularities of natural interaction. 

Even ones we take for granted, such as body language.