Stanford carried out a new study examining the effects of augmented reality (AR) on people’s behavior. The study was performed by the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and led by the Stanford scholar Professor Jeremy Bailenson who, in collaboration with the graduate students Fernanda Herrera, Hanseul Jun and Mark Roman Miller who were also the lead authors in the study, found that people’s interactions with virtual characters in the digitally-enhanced world in AR also influenced how they interacted with people in the real physical world. This change in behavior occurred even after the user had taken off their AR devices off.

Professor Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communications, performed three experiments with 218 participants and a pair of augmented reality glasses.

The researchers discovered that participants who had an augmented reality experience had their interactions in the real world change as well. The augmented reality environment was simulated by having the participants wear AR goggles that superimposed computer-generated content onto the real-world environments. These interactions got changed even after the user had removed their AR devices. A good example was where a participant would avoid sitting on a chair that they had seen a virtual individual sit on.

Impact of Augmented Reality on User Behavior
Impact of Augmented Reality on User Behavior

Another interesting finding about the research is that people tended to be influenced by the presence of a virtual person the same way they’d be influenced by the presence of a real person that is beside them. The findings were published on PLOS ONE on May 14.

The researchers found that the use of augmented reality influenced how people turned their heads, how they walked, how well they performed their tasks and even how they connected socially with the physical people sharing the same room.

The findings in the research also mirror much of the work Bailenson has done with virtual reality.

Augmented reality is currently seeing a bit of activity as some of the leading tech companies are currently ploughing their investments into developing augmented reality goggles, smart glasses and other AR products. This represents a major shift from the focus on virtual reality (VR) where some of the top players such as Oculus have already developed their complete lineup of first-generation headsets.

Augmented reality hardware is also developing at a such a rapid pace that it is now possible to project highly realistic 3D renderings of an actual person superimposed onto the real physical environment of the person wearing the AR device. As this technology improves even further and incorporates even more expressive and highly nuanced images of people, it will enable people across distances to make eye contact and communicate non-verbally in various nuanced ways. This level of realistic rendering is hard to achieve with the current video conferencing tools.

Researching the Effects of AR on People

The research was carried out on 218 participants.

In the first experiment, the researchers included a realistic 3D person named Chris who sat in a real chair in the room. Augmented reality technology was used to overlay a computer-generated image of Chris onto the chair. The participants in the study were subsequently required to accomplish a number of anagram tasks as Chris, the computer-generated AR image, watched. From the study, the participants found the hard puzzles even harder to solve due to the presence of Chris, than when no one was watching them. That is, the “presence” of Chris created the feeling that someone was actually watching them.

In the second experiment, the researchers were trying to determine whether the participants in the study would sit on the chair that was previously occupied by Chris. When the participants were putting on the headset, none of them sat in the chair that was previously occupied by Chris even though he was no longer there. If they removed the headsets, some 72% of the participants still avoided Chris’s chair and chose to sit on the chair next to his.

The first experiment was the manifestation of a concept in psychology called social inhibition where people are normally unable to perform complex or unfamiliar tasks when they are being watched. In social inhibition, people will easily accomplish simple tasks but struggle with the more challenging tasks when someone is watching them physically. However, in this experiment, social inhibition manifested itself even when the subjects were being “observed” by an avatar in augmented reality. They were able to easily complete the easy anagrams but struggled with the more complex anagrams when the avatar of Chris was visible through their AR field of vision.

How augmented reality affects real life social connections

The second experiment had one of the most dramatic results. With their headsets on, none of the participants sat in the chair that was previously occupied by avatar Chris. Even with their headsets off, 72% still chose to avoid the seat. This experiment illustrated how augmented reality can integrate into our physical world and affect how we interact with the real world. The researchers also found that the effect of an augmented reality experience will linger on even after the user has taken off their goggles, as seen in the 72% of participants still avoiding the chair previously occupied by avatar Chris.

The third experiment involved the examination of the impact on augmented reality on social connections between two individuals talking to each other with one of the parties wearing an augmented reality headset. In this experiment, the researchers found that wearing augmented reality device made someone less socially connected to the person they are conversing with.

According to the researcher, this study scratches just the surface of the social-psychological benefits and costs of using augmented reality. Bailenson concedes that additional research will need to be carried out to fully understand the impact of the technology as it continues to grow and permeate our lives.

 

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