UCL News


UCL in the News: Overcoming your virtual fears

22 October 2007

We're in the Immersive Virtual Environments Laboratory at UCL, where researchers are looking at how to make people engage with characters inside a virtual environment, and exploring how virtual reality could be used to help train people to cope with real world difficulties.

The research carried out by Professor Mel Slater [UCL Computer Science] and his colleagues has shown that people react in virtual reality in a way similar to real life - and far more so than would happen just by showing a video or asking them to imagine a situation.

"In these virtual environments most people find themselves surprised at how much they respond to virtual characters even though they know they're not real" says Prof Slater - an observation which certainly chimes with our experience. …

Much of the UCL work centres around exploring the factors which give people a sense of "presence" within a virtual environment.

"If you want to believe in a character there are things that they have to do correctly, otherwise no matter how graphically realistic they are, it just won't work," says Dr David Swapp who manages the laboratory. …

"You want them to maintain eye contact with you to a certain degree but you don't want them to stare, and you pick up on the subtleties of this very easily - if it's not right then you can notice very quickly," he says. …

The main application of the UCL work thus far has been various kinds of clinical psychotherapy. …

"It's a controlled environment" says Professor Slater. "We can have a psychiatrist standing next to someone monitoring them - you couldn't do that in real time, you couldn't follow them around for a week to see how they behave - it's a perfect lab setting". …

Therapy for various kinds of phobia is a common use of virtual reality, but it is social phobia and the exploration of interactions with people which most interest Professor Slater.

"It's technically more interesting and I think also more important in some ways. You can have a fear of bridges - and so you don't walk across a bridge, but if you have a fear of people, life is very difficult".

Monise Durrani, BBC News