Can Virtual Reality change your mind

Crowd using Virtual reality headset

Today, we are here with you to talk about virtual reality and how what happens inside this headset has the power to change what happens in the real world. By now, I'm guessing that most of you have had some experience with VR before, but for those of you who haven't, it can be hard to imagine how strapping goggles onto your face could make you feel anything, except socially awkward. Looks can be deceiving, and how VR appears from the outside can cause people to misjudge the impact that it'll have on our long-term future. The reality is that even with today's underlying technology, people are always surprised at how real and how visceral it already feels. And we're only starting to scratch the surface of what's possible.

The question that seems to get people thinking is, what’s going to happen when it gets to be so real, so advanced that we can no longer tell the difference? But my point today isn't actually about how fast technology is moving because I think that's something we already know. My point is that over the next five years, we're going to have to open up our thinking in entirely new ways to use these new capabilities and move humanity forward.

In my work, I get to introduce a lot of people to VR for the first time, and what I've found is that a lot of people have no idea that it's being used for things other than games and entertainment. But what if I told you that the NFL, NBA, and US Olympic Ski Team all use VR to train for competition? Or that Ford, BMW, and Volkswagen are using it not only to reinvent the car buying experience but how they design cars in the first place. Or what if I told you that VR could be used to help alleviate stress and anxiety for people who have dementia or Alzheimer's? Or that VR is an alternative to morphine? If any of these are surprising to you, then you're not alone.

A concept that's important to VR is called presence - not as in birthday presents, but as in the feeling of being somewhere. It's not something that we think about on a day to day basis, but it's our brain's distinct way of telling us that experience is real and that we're not just looking at a picture or a book. What VR does is activate the motor cortex and our sensory system in a way that's similar to a real-life experience. As an outside observer, you might not be able to see somebody experiencing presence, but what you can see are the physiological and emotional reactions that occur as a result. Now, if any of you have done VR before, you may have felt something like this.

So aside from being able to make people swear and sweat profusely, why is presence important and how is it supposed to help people? Well, that's a fascinating question that's bringing together researchers from around the world and across a broad variety of disciplines. As it turns out, something that happens when we achieve presence in VR is that our brains become more accurate at encoding memories. There's been some interesting research from the University of Maryland that shows that there's about a nine percent improvement in memory accuracy when learning in VR versus looking at a flat screen.

A study was done by STRIVR, a VR startup, actually shows that recall and response times are improved by 12 percent. Now on the surface, those numbers may not seem huge, but in the right situations that can mean the difference between winning and losing, easily. And in extreme circumstances, that could be the difference between life and death.

VR also gives people a safe environment to practice things that could be otherwise expensive, risky, or dangerous to replicate. And this could be for anything ranging from operating heavy machinery to practicing life-saving surgery to saving hostages or even prepping for Black Friday. Interestingly enough, the VR training program at Walmart has been so successful that since starting in 2016, they've expanded from using it at 30 of their locations to almost all 200. And the feedback from employees has been nothing but positive.

Because of its ability to tap into brain pathways, VR is also showing a lot of promise in the fields of cognitive and behavioral therapy. To give you some context, an estimated one in five adults in the United States has some form of mental disorder. This not only profoundly impacts their lives, but it also affects the lives of the people around them. This costs an estimated 467 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses. Unfortunately, one of the most common solutions that we have today is prescription drugs. Research has shown that in some cases, VR can be a useful alternative. Through several techniques such as exposure therapy, distraction therapy, neuro-feedback, virtual experiences can be explicitly designed to address a host of conditions. The progress in some of these areas is further than in some others, but the fact that VR can even be considered as a viable solution for some of these health challenges can't be understated. This goes to show that there is still so much we have to learn about the human mind. VR in healthcare is an area to watch.

Another topic that's important to VR is called embodiment. An embodiment is the feeling of agency and control that you have within your body. But like presence, it's not something that we're typically conscious of on a day to day basis. And yet it has an enormous impact on the perception of the world and ourselves. An example of this is called the “rubber hand illusion,” which is a simple demonstration that shows how your brain can change what it perceives is part of you. So, after a few minutes in VR, your mind starts adapting and thinking that your avatar is your body. For example, studies from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford suggest that even brief embodiment inside the avatar of an older adult has a significant impact on their attitude towards the elderly.

A different project from the Columbia University called “1,000 Cut Journey” actually lets you experience racism first-hand from the perspective of a black boy, as he grows up and undergoes unequal treatment through no choice of his own. There's still plenty of learning and ongoing work being done in this space, but one thing is obvious: Embodiment in VR can induce a level of empathy and understanding that's more effective than any other form of communication that we have today.

Another way that VR can help us is to get a better understanding of our self-perception. So, it's pretty well known that people with eating disorders have a persistently distorted representation of the size of their body. In a study done in 2016, researchers from the Netherlands were able to show that by putting people in a well sized avatar, it was possible to decrease the overestimation of their body size and thus improve their self-body image. Interestingly, it was found that after the headset came off, the changes stayed.

In yet a different study out of the University of Barcelona, researchers studied the effects of self-counseling in VR. Participants in an avatar that looked like themselves were asked to share some issues that they faced in real life. Then from the perspective of Freud, they would hear the recording played back of themselves. And after responding with advice, as Freud, they would swap back into their own body and understand their advice played back, but at a lower pitch. So, the conclusion from this experiment was that stepping outside of one's self in VR can provide enough of a perspective shift that can foundationally change a person's thinking and that we do have the ability to take our own advice, but sometimes it's more effective when it's coming from somebody else.

There's still so much work to be done in this space, but it is fascinating to see how VR can enable and accelerate this type of learning. It gives us a tangible way to begin to test and understand the discrepancies between what we think, what we feel, and what we believe we already know. VR can accelerate new insights and help usher change, not through force or coercion, but the power of perspective. Thank you.

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