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13 May, 2010

Perceptual shift

If you have time, read this paper about 'first-person experience of body transfer in virtual reality'.  Then read how Ian Sample reports it in the Guardian.

One can see how Sample obtained his material, but somehow it's an entirely different story. Peripheral elements which, admittedly, are in the paper are repurposed and, embellished by extrapolated details (the paper makes no mention of participants "gasping"), convey an entirely different interpretation of the study.

The researchers examined three key parameters of sensory feedback in VR:

  • Perspective (first person vs. third)
  • Movement (the avatar's head movements synchronous with the participant's vs prerecorded)
  • Touch (visual input supplemented by real arm-stroking vs visual input alone)
A secondary aspect of the study was that all participants were male whilst the avatar was female. As the paper says, this was to attempt to "generate a body ownership illusion where the virtual body did not visually resemble the real body of the participants, and was not even the same gender". i.e. gender was used as an example of a difference; race would have been another, potentially interchangeable for the purposes of this exercise.

Yet that's the central point of Sample's story, "Virtual reality used to transfer men's minds into a woman's body", a title somewhat irrelevant to the actual research. There was no attempt to investigate gender psychology – the experimental design didn't permit any such conclusions to be drawn. If that had been the intention, even Second Life would have been more effective, whereby male subjects could have attempted social interaction via female avatars. As a commenter on the Guardian story says:

The idea that you can tap into a woman's perspective simply by being given her body is offensive and banal.... You're far more likely to gain insight into female perspective by reading books and listening to what women have to say.
The researchers may well agree - nothing in their paper suggests otherwise.

Slightly less depressingly: isn't it wonderful that modern publishing often gives readers access to the source material behind articles, plus an opportunity to publicly challenge 'journalists' sensationalist distortions?

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