Virtual World Research, Part 2: Reality in a Can

Part 1 of this two-part series examines the virtues of virtual worlds as research environments. This final part looks at some of the types of experiments that are being conducted in the metaverse.

Universities and government agencies, even a few private corporations, are going all “mad scientist” on us in the realm of virtual worlds. But why are they experimenting there and why are so many drawn to virtual worlds like a dying man to a priest?

“As a new part of the real world, virtual worlds are like the utopian communes and artistic movements of the 1960s: a flowering of creativity and exploration of alternate ways of life that may eventually reshape all other dimensions of reality,” William Sims Bainbridge, program director in human-centered computing at the National Science Foundation (NSF) told LinuxInsider. He is known as “Catullus” on “World of Warcraft” (“WoW”), and he conducted the first full scientific conference on “WoW.” He expects to soon publish “sober, scholarly essays” on the basis of the discussions held in that conference.

Civilization Study

Bainbridge’s book will hit shelves in late 2009. “It is a study of the civilization of ‘World of Warcraft,’ examined as if it were real — and it IS real — using classical sociological theories and methods,” he explained. To do this research, Bainbridge created 22 characters (avatars) of all kinds and ran them for more than 2,300 hours, on his own time and his own dime.

However, the majority of experiments conducted in virtual game worlds happen in Second Life. “While we do work with educators and researchers to help them get the most out of their Second Life presence, they don’t need our permission to conduct research as long as they do so in a way that is respectful of our community standards,” John Lester, Operations Director at Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) told LinuxInsider. “Second Life provides an open platform for creativity and experimentation. That makes it very popular with academics, who use it to research everything from urban planning to computer science to psychology.”

Virtual No-Play, In-Play Zones

However, not all virtual world experiments are contained to a single game environment. A few blend virtual and real worlds across digital borders. For example, GamerCoach offers a virtual service by way of live, in-game, video game player coaching and training across gaming brands. The company has over 100 “coaches” registered from the U.S., Canada, Korea and Great Britain.

“The experiment is to see if inexperienced, 40-year-olds and older, video game players on Playstation, XBox, Wii and PC, will accept live in-game training from younger, tech savvy experienced game players,” Jim Bonfield, managing partner of GamerCoach, told LinuxInsider. “We are still in Beta but the technology works very well and our proof of concept is happening. We could never offer this in the ‘real’ world due to geo restrictions.”

Play Played Out

There are still other virtual world experiments that ignore the gaming world entirely.

“I conduct research for treatment of phobias, particularly the fear of flying, in a virtual world,” Jayme Renee Albin, Ph.D, assistant director at Behavioral Associates told LinuxInsider. Albin’s virtual world research has been published and presented at peer review conferences and journals. “It’s an amazing technology that allows people to be exposed to environments that normally would be too overwhelming for them to face. It allows for the ability of control and accessibility for repeated exposures,” she says. “As long as the subjects are viscerally aroused in the virtual world the treatment can be effective.”

Along those same psychological lines, Wesleyan Professor Matt Kurtz led a National Institute of Mental Health-funded study called “A Virtual Reality Apartment as a Measure of Medication Management Skills in Patients With Schizophrenia: A Pilot Study.” It was published in the Schizophrenia Bulletin.

The study simulated a four-room apartment in a virtual reality environment. The virtual reality (VR) tool was created by the researchers to help them learn more about the neurocognitive skills of people with schizophrenia and specifically about their ability to take medications on schedule. Previously, patients were tested using a paper and pencil test, which was limited at best.

The VR tool can be used by clinicians so that they can get an idea of how easy it will be for a client, based on his or her cognitive skills, to remember to take a variety of medications at specific times, Kurtz believes. “It’s an interesting melding of technology, research and practical applications,” Kurtz told LinuxInsider. Kurtz is also planning a study which will use computer avatars to test emotion recognition in schizophrenia patients.

For the Win (FTW)

In his independent research outside NSF, Bainbridge takes a much more radical viewpoint, that “virtual worlds are prototyping future modes of existence for humanity that may in some cases have nothing to do with traditional modes of being, politics or social structures.” For many years he, like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, has been exploring the possibility of porting human personalities into information systems and using artificial intelligence to grant them a kind of immortality, and indeed “transcendence” of many aspects of current human life.

And therein lies the win: the birth of a new reality, one that blends the imaginable with the touchable, the impossible with the doable; a new reign where mind matters as much — or more — than the corporeal. Perhaps, one day, even immortality will be within our reach. A Second Life, indeed.

Virtual World Research, Part 1: A Place to Experiment

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