SEVEN: Conclusion: next steps in VR research

This concluding chapter reflects on what the next steps might be for social scientists and humanities scholars interested in using VR within projects. While VR is sometimes fiddly and frustrating to use, it can create ‘wow’ moments of experiencing a new type of environment. The key lesson discussed here is that significant research using VR can be undertaken without the apparent complexities of creating original content. Ethical researchers need to proceed with caution, however, particularly given the dominance of the consumer VR market by Meta, a corporation that minutely tracks the behaviour of consumers and erodes privacy. Nonetheless, given falling costs and increased ease of use, VR has great potential for application across a range of disciplines and topic areas to create tremendously innovative research.

Throughout this book we have argued that VR offers a variety of interesting opportunities to scholars working in different areas. Nonetheless, published research in the field tends to be dominated by a small number of disciplines, not least human-computer interaction, psychology, medicine and archaeology. This is not to say that exciting work is absent outside these fields, just that perhaps it is not as widespread as it might be. In our own discipline of geography, for example, VR has drawn the attention of a surprisingly small number of researchers, despite its obvious power for exploring questions of space and place (Bos, 2021).

VR is an emerging technology; arguably it has been for over 40 years. Rapid advances in the last decade have seen plummeting costs alongside precipitous rises in graphical quality and useability. The result is that opportunities are opening up for a much wider range of researchers. There remain, however, significant barriers to use. Because VR remains a fairly niche pastime in wider society, many researchers have never had their own VR ‘wow’ moment of experiencing the technology for the first time. Looking at VR content on a conventional monitor is a qualitatively different and frequently unremarkable experience compared with the feeling of immersion generated by an HMD. To understand potential research applications, therefore, scholars first of all really need to try it for themselves.

Despite the advances in useability, there is no doubt that VR remains fiddly to set up and occasionally temperamental, which can be a barrier to the non-technically inclined. Newer stand-alone HMDs are helping to overcome this, but there is no getting around the fact that VR is a peculiar experience. The thing that makes it so compelling – being instantly transported somewhere else – is also the thing that can be so off-putting. VR makes you physically vulnerable to a material world you can no longer see or hear: you can trip over real objects that do not appear in the virtual world; you might fear ridicule or even assault from those sharing your physical space but not your virtual one. These issues raise very significant questions around gender, age, ability and a range of other embodied qualities that have historically garnered less attention from a tech sector dominated by young, white, cis men (Bergvall, 2020).

Even after trying VR, many people are left with the thought that it is impressive, but it is not clear what one might want to do with the technology. Hopefully, this book has gone some way to addressing that question when it comes to potential research applications. What we have emphasised, however, is that to get started with VR research, it is not necessary to learn 3D design and programming in order to build your own content. This may have been true prior to the third wave of VR from around 2012 but simply is not the case today. Indeed, focusing purely on creating your own VR content misses significant potential opportunities for research using existing materials.

In Chapter 2, we looked at existing VR content as a possible object of research. Content analysis is a well-established technique in the humanities and social sciences, though is less familiar to the more science-led disciplines that have hitherto dominated VR research. As such, there is a real lack of work examining the kinds of experiences that are being consumed by VR users today. This is in stark contrast to work applying this kind of approach to art, literature, music, film and TV, video games and a variety of other media. The tools and techniques developed to explore these art forms and media can also be applied to examining VR materials, but with the added complexity that the VR experience is a co-construction between the content and the body of the user. This embodied quality needs to be carefully integrated to make the analysis meaningful.

In Chapter 3, we examined the ways in which VR can be used with participants, focusing on how existing VR content can be reused rather than on the process of creating original materials. Commercial content has the advantages of being abundant, often of high quality and technically robust. The sheer quantity of such materials means that it is often possible to find content that aligns with a research design, or which can be adapted to fit. Because VR experiences generate a strong plausibility illusion, however, there are significant ethical concerns to reflect on when putting participants into highly convincing virtual situations. Our physiological and psychological responses to VR scenarios are similar to those we would experience in the real world, although the effects do not seem to linger for long after removing the HMD. In the moment, however, participants can be genuinely frightened and experience other negative emotions, meaning that a clear ethical rationale is required to undertake activities that generate such feelings. There are also important practical considerations when working with participants, including the need to keep them safe while they are cut off from the physical world around them. Cybersickness, where a mismatch of movement and visuals generates nausea, remains a significant problem with using VR. While there are techniques to mitigate this, a significant minority of participants can potentially suffer ill effects, and this needs to be considered in any research design.

In Chapter 4, we reflected on collaborative VR experiences, particularly social VR systems. This moves us past the idea that VR is a solitary practice by allowing people in different parts of the world to gather in the same virtual space. Many social VR systems are free to access, with users able to come together to socialise and work, even building their own environments in which to do this. There are fascinating possibilities for ethnographic work in these spaces, as new forms of community are beginning to develop among groups using these platforms. There are, of course, issues to consider, such as problems associated with trolling and the constraints caused by somewhat abstract avatar design, notwithstanding ongoing work to explore how non-verbal social cues can be integrated into these worlds. One key opportunity, however, is that the communities associated with these platforms can also form a pool of potential research participants. Recruits from these groups have the advantage of not being distracted by the novelty of being in VR as well as being able to use their own equipment for remote projects.

Chapter 5 turned to consider the simplest level of content creation for VR: using 360° photographs and video. A number of cameras have been developed that can create imagery that places the user in the middle of a scene, from very expensive multi-lens devices to simpler dual-lens gadgets and even software for creating panoramas from a basic smartphone. 360° photography can be viewed in the simplest of HMDs, even those that are little more than a box with two lenses and a mount for a smartphone. The key advantage of 360° imagery is how simple it is to create a convincing sense of being in a completely different location. This has great potential for remote site visits and tourism research as well as experiments that examine how people respond to being in different kinds of environments. Such imagery can be made even more compelling by considering the multisensory, adding audio to the visuals and even appropriate smells and haptic stimuli.

Finally, in Chapter 6, we reflected on the process of creating original VR content using games engines. Platforms such as Unity and Unreal Engine have become the de facto standard for VR researchers wanting to create bespoke experiences for participants. When testing participant response to a particular scenario or environment, creating project-specific VR materials may be the only option. Working with professional programmers and 3D designers may be necessary, especially when creating the kind of sophisticated experience needed with public-facing content. This level of refinement may not always be necessary to meet the needs of a project, however, and there is a wealth of ready-made 3D objects and pre-written code that can be employed when assembling your own ‘rough and ready’ VR materials. The advantage of creating bespoke content is that it can be built directly around the needs of the research design. Indeed, exciting possibilities open up for collaborative co-design with participants when programming and 3D design skills are added to a research team.

In making some final reflections, we have to note that nothing dates as quickly as a book about technology. As a result, we have tried to avoid, so far as possible, getting into the specifics of different VR products, as these will change rapidly. There is, however, one elephant in the room that is worth briefly acknowledging here. There is no avoiding the fact that VR technology has advanced rapidly in part because of investments from Meta (formerly Facebook). At the time of writing, nearly one fifth of Meta’s global workforce is employed in VR-related development (Byford, 2021). Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even outlined his long-term vision to create a ‘metaverse’ that seamlessly blends virtual and physical experiences in our everyday lives (Newton, 2021). For those of us interested in questions of technology and privacy, this is a truly horrifying prospect given Facebook’s history (Losse, 2012; Spring, 2021). Meta’s Oculus subsidiary has become the default option within consumer VR, offering easily the cheapest user experience. But Meta is also committed to placing advertising content into VR as well as introducing eye tracking and other biometric measures to its HMDs that can be used to quantify engagement with that content (Robertson, 2021). Researchers considering using VR therefore need to think carefully about the type of device that they employ, and the particular ethical concerns raised by using Meta’s products.

We have written this book from the position of being academic geographers. Geography is a bit of a magpie discipline, encompassing the physical and social sciences as well as the humanities. Nonetheless, the ways that we would think to use VR in research are going to be very different from how scholars working in other disciplines might think to use this technology. What we hope to have achieved with this book is to highlight possibilities and spark ideas to take research in directions that simply would not have occurred to us from our disciplinary perspective. If there is just one message that we would like people to take away from this book, it is that one does not need to be a skilled programmer or have access to a large budget in order to seize these opportunities. Much like the hype about VR early in its life cycle, we would end with the rather hackneyed observation that the possibilities for research are limited only by our imaginations.

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Virtual Reality Methods
A Guide for Researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities