Since the mid-2010s, virtual reality (VR) technology has advanced rapidly. This book explores the many opportunities that VR can offer for humanities and social sciences researchers.
The book provides a user-friendly, non-technical methods guide to using ready-made VR content and 360° video as well as creating custom materials. It examines the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to using VR, providing helpful, real-world examples of how researchers have used the technology. The insights drawn from this analysis will inspire scholars to explore the possibilities of using VR in their own research projects.
This introductory chapter explores the research potential offered by working with VR technology and seeks to demystify VR for non-specialist scholars. Definitions of VR, MR, XR and AR are explored, noting that the focus of the book is on VR as it appears within head-mounted displays. We move on to consider the reasons why researchers may wish to employ VR within their projects, focusing on two main areas: VR as an object of study, and VR as a methodological tool. We also emphasise the significance of VR in generating a strong sense of immersion and presence within virtual environments. Contemporary VR research is situated within a brief history of how the technology has evolved. Finally, we give an overview of the chapters in the remainder of the book.
This chapter explores how content analysis can be used to examine VR materials. Commercial VR content, both games and other experiences, have been subjected to relatively little examination by critical scholars. There is great potential to adapt interpretative tools from other disciplines, particularly game studies, to undertake this analysis. Game studies helpfully emphasise playing the text, rather than simply examining the story, though in the context of VR, the body of the player needs to be woven into this kind of analysis. The chapter reflects on the advantages and limitations of autoethnographic approaches for examining VR content as interactive texts. As a worked example of this approach, we reflect on our analysis of Half-Life: Alyx (Valve, 2020), the first big-budget franchise game to be released exclusively for VR.
This chapter examines approaches to undertaking VR projects with human participants. We explore the ethics of working with human subjects in VR, including problems related to intense emotional stimulation and cybersickness. We also reflect on the predominance of quantitative methods in projects that analyse participant response to VR environments and scenarios. The emphasis is on how existing VR materials might be employed as a simpler and lower-cost alternative to building original VR content. The chapter also includes a case study of a qualitative project in which experienced gamers played the VR zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine (Vertigo Games, 2016). The exercise revealed a powerful affectual connection to the virtual space, creating a considerably more physically and emotionally intense experience than participants normally experienced when gaming.
This chapter examines social VR experiences and the research opportunities offered where multiple users are interacting with the same virtual environment. Mechanisms for collaboration within virtual space are examined alongside the critical role that avatar design plays in these interactions. While the nature of the head-mounted display is to cut people off from the world around them, VR users can form alternative communities within the virtual spaces they visit. We reflect on some of these issues through a case study of VR Church, where worshippers come together for virtual church services within the social VR platform AltspaceVR. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges of undertaking ethnographic research with communities in VR.
This chapter examines the production of 360° photography and video as a simple means of creating original content for VR. Images from two or more cameras with fish-eye lenses are stitched together to make a photo sphere. When viewed through a head-mounted display, users can turn their heads and look around these images as if from a fixed point at the centre of the scene. The technology has become popular for virtual field tours, journalism and tourism, allowing users to explore a site in the round. Existing 360° content can be reused within research projects, but it is also relatively cost-effective and straightforward for researchers to generate their own materials for use within specific projects. The chapter explores how 360° content can be combined with other mechanisms for sensory stimulation in VR. We examine this through a case study of a pilot project examining therapeutic landscapes and how the well-being effects of exposure to nature might be reproduced and interrogated through 360° video and audio.
This chapter examines more complex forms of content creation for VR, including the use of games engines to program original materials. Rather than covering the specifics of coding and 3D design, the chapter reflects on different approaches to building original content, including opportunities for collaboration with skilled practitioners. In exploring why researchers may wish to develop original VR materials, the chapter reflects on two overlapping types of projects: those testing specific scenarios with participants and those exposing users to novel environments. The chapter then reflects on a case study where we created very simple VR content featuring two historic landscapes for use in a workshop examining memory and memorialisation.
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.