Avatars (and immersive computing) to the rescue

The pandemic has been hard on not only our physical health but also our mental wellbeing. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported in June 2020 that more than 40 percent of adults in the United States experienced symptoms of at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition since the outbreak began. Anxiety disorder was three times more common in 2020 than in 2019, and depression was four times more prevalent.

According to Evan Suma Rosenberg, virtual reality (VR) might be able to help. Suma Rosenberg is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and heads up the Illusioneering Lab, which focuses on immersive technologies like VR and augmented reality.

“What can virtual reality do to help people, improve our lives, and improve our work in a situation where our social lives are so degraded?” he asked. “Virtual reality may not be the solution to all the problems of the world, but can it play a role here?”

Funded by a grant from the University of Minnesota Medical School, Suma Rosenberg and his Ph.D. student Danhua Zhang spent the summer researching more immersive alternatives to video conferencing. The result was gophervr.org, a web-based VR chatroom where students, faculty, and staff can interact remotely—no six-feet rule required.

“Everyone is represented with customizable avatars,” Suma Rosenberg explained. “It enables other types of interactions that you can’t really get in something like Zoom, such as looking directly at the person you are talking with and pointing or gesturing to objects of interest in a shared 3D space. And because you have spatial audio, the closer you get the louder the audio gets—which means if two people want to just talk amongst themselves, you can organically move away and have a side conversation.”

The web infrastructure can house up to 20 people per virtual room, and it isn’t limited to those with VR headsets. Users can join with their smartphones or computers too. Although the experience for phone or desktop users is more akin to a first-person video game, they can still move around in the 3D space and benefit from spatial audio.

Suma Rosenberg said that virtual reality can provide a more enriching, immersive experience for social interaction.

“The technical term for it is the sense of presence,” he said. “It’s the subjective experience of being there and being transported to a different place. Looking at something on a computer screen can be engaging, but virtual reality can elevate this feeling to a whole new level, which can cause people to respond to the virtual experience more like they would in the real world.”

This summer, Suma Rosenberg organized a National Science Foundation (NSF) undergraduate research symposium with gophervr.org, hosting 150 college students nationwide. He hopes the virtual space will continue to be used during the pandemic, whether by student groups or for work meetings across the U of M.

Suma Rosenberg is also working with associate professor Richard Landers in the College of Liberal Arts’ psychology department to study the impact of VR-facilitated social interaction on users’ mental and emotional health. Then, they hope to see whether VR can also influence the public’s compliance of social distancing regulations. Their collaboration is funded by an NSF COVID-19 RAPID grant.

“The real thing I want to look at here is whether this way of being able to inter-act with people virtually will actually elevate moods and fill some of those social needs,” Suma Rosenberg said. “VR may not be a perfect solution, but it can get closer to some of the real world social experiences that we are currently not able to have safely.”