Perception in the world of virtual reality

Steinbeis researchers examine Second Life behavior with eye-tracking

Second Life has enjoyed tremendous popularity as a medium. People are likely to spend more and more time in such virtual worlds, privately and on business. A project team led by Prof. Dr. Volker Walter at the Heidenheim-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Media and Advertising Research has examined how perception and visual orientation work in Second Life, and the issues it raises

As part of an exploratory research project, the team analyzed how users find their bearings in virtual worlds. To do this they used an eye-tracking system which traces test persons’ eye movements. On the same basis, the Steinbeis Transfer Center is now designing research processes which would allow companies to use Second Life as a communication channel and tailor the virtual environment to user needs. Already when creating representative offices or entire virtual worlds, it will be possible to shape the design and structural processes to arrive at the optimum virtual environment.

The study was based on qualitative methods centering on a usability test; it did not matter how many people had a specific usage problem or difficulties finding their way around, but rather what types of problems they encountered. During the study the test persons’ eye movements were captured electronically while they visited a representative office in Second Life. The project team looked at a virtual beach cinema set up by MFG (the Baden-Württemberg media and film society). The cinema was still undergoing development, so it could use findings from the study for further design work.

To a certain extent, a user’s perception in a virtual world means identifying with the figure representing them (the avatar) and working out navigation and menus. In “genuine” reality, users sense directly and see where they are in a room. In virtual reality there is continual reconciliation between “me”, the avatar and the environment. This occupies a significant proportion of visual capacity.

If it is not immediately obvious how an application works, users tend to revert to behavioral patterns from the real world. The reason for this is obvious: Even if virtual reality allows user to do things differently than in physical reality, if in doubt, the user still reverts to personal experience, and this is still shaped by real life. Only when users spend more time using the system, and do this more intensely, does learning become reinforced: Users start working out how different things are in the virtual world.

This makes it possible to work out general design rules for representations in virtual worlds. There are two ways of arriving at theses rules. For tools such as websites, one has to define the purpose and goals of the design. If the goals are functional (help users find information or get to know products), then the design should be based closely on real, functional aspects. This contrasts with Second Life visitors, who have more explorative goals and want to try things out, play, experiment, and experience precisely the things that don’t work in real life. In such cases, programmers should deliberately avoid realistic functions to satisfy the playful needs of the user. Further findings of the study are available in a special publication, Eye-Tracking in Second Life (ISBN 3837051595).

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