Image: DALL-E 3, prompted by MIXED
A Study finds that emotional connection, not graphics, is responsible for immersion in a VR environment.
A new study from the University of Bath has found that it is the emotional response, rather than high quality graphics or a wide field of view, that makes people feel immersed in a believable VR environment.
In their study, researchers from the University of Bath’s Departments of Computer Science and Psychology investigated for the first time how technical and human factors interact to influence users’ sense of presence in a VR environment.
Movement and agency vs. visual realism
“A lot of money goes into making VR headsets and screens better and into rendering virtual worlds more realistic, but more effort needs to be centered on improving the user’s emotional experience,” says lead researcher Dr. Crescent Jicol.
Her team’s research has shown that technical factors such as visual realism and field of view do not have a significant direct impact on perceived presence. Instead, users’ sense of presence is significantly influenced when technical factors are combined with human factors.
This is the case, for example, when a virtual environment is able to induce fear and agency. The researchers define agency as the subjective impression that a virtual world can be influenced by interaction.
Technical factors do not significantly influence immersion
“We used a large sample size – 360 participants – and found that, counter to previous assumptions, technical factors do not affect presence directly to any meaningful degree.” Presence expresses the feeling of actually being in the virtual world (see immersion).
Participants tried several VR games and then filled out questionnaires. They rated their sense of presence, the emotions they felt, and their ability to act in the VR world.
“When technical factors are paired with human factors – for instance, a virtual environment’s ability to induce fear and agency – presence is impacted. In other words, ‘being there’ needs to be complemented with ‘doing there’ for maximum impact,” Jicol explains.
The researchers concluded that emotion and agency are critical to creating presence, while visual realism is less important — with one exception.
Fear and visual realism: a powerful duo
Interestingly, the study also indicated that virtual reality environments designed to induce fear benefited most from high visual realism. In one game, for example, participants had to defend themselves against a menacing wolf-like creature.
Dr. Jicol suggests that the realism of the environment may have been more effective because the participants looked more closely at the creature and searched for a way out.
In contrast, in a game designed to induce feelings of happiness, where the wolf was replaced by a playful dog, participants reported a strong sense of presence, even without closely examining the environment. In this case, even the field of view had no discernible effect on the participants’ sense of presence.