Researchers at the University of Barcelona have been studying the effects of subtle physiological cues on character interaction in virtual environments. By wiring up users with sensors to record heart rate, respiration, and galvanic skin response, they are able to drive more compelling behavioral characteristics of the person’s virtual avatar. For example, the user’s heart rate is shown in the “movement of the character’s feet; respiration in the rising of their chest; and the galvanic skin response in the more or less reddish colour of the face”. In this manner the team hopes to understand how such subtle cues might express more realism and evoke more empathy from other users in the same shared environment.
“We maintain that the linking of subjective corporal states to a virtual reality can improve the sensation of realism that a person has of this reality and, eventually, create a stronger link between humans and this virtual reality,” says researcher and co-author of the work, Christoph Groenegress.
Not only does this map a way for avatars to become more directly responsive to the physiology of their users but it also looks at the psychological components of virtual human interactions by assessing how other users respond to such cues. Advancing this level of character realism in virtual worlds, particularly with respect to the increasingly social nature of those worlds, is important to establish elements of trust, collaboration, and affinity.
This work will not only help grow the nascent field of human-avatar interaction but also enables more possibilities for immersive narratives. Each additional sensor potentially offers a new input to drive game elements as the narrative unfolds around the user’s interactions. For example, the soundtrack and lighting of a game might be responsive to a user’s heart-rate, adjusting mood and non-player character behaviors based on the user’s own physiological response, and generate valuable data for game developers trying to determine maximum engagement (or emotional challenge) for a plot device.
While gamers may be disinclined to strap on bulky sensoring hardware, this work speaks to the ongoing determination to remove the boundaries between humans and our virtual transactions. One can imagine a lightweight headset, like an advanced Emotiv rig, constantly picking up physiological and neurological responses and bussing them into the game world. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to imagine the same type of hardware intermediating and informing many of our online virtual interactions…