Neal Stephenson’s influential 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash offered a fairly dystopian vision of a future virtual-reality based Internet known as the “Metaverse” and is widely credited with bringing the term “avatar” into mainstream culture. Stephenson called people who remained publicly plugged in around the clock via wearable computer gear “gargoyles,” and he derided the adverse impact of that level of immersion on social behavior. “Gargoyles are no fun to talk to,” he wrote. “They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world.”
We are at the dawn of the 21st century in which the novel is set, and we don’t yet have a fully immersive VR Internet. But smartphones are ubiquitous, and augmented reality (AR) is already here, most notably in popular games like Pokémon Go and the Microsoft Hololens AR interactive crime drama Fragments. It seems Stephenson wasn’t far off the mark. According to researchers at Stanford University, layering computer-generated content, like someone’s avatar, onto a real-world environment will influence people’s behavior as if that person were really present. The researchers described the results of three recent experiments on the impact of AR on social interactions in a new paper in PLOS ONE.
Quite a lot of research has studied the psychological impacts of both rudimentary virtual worlds like Second Life and fully immersive VR experiences—a good chunk of it conducted in co-author Jeremy Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford. One of the first simulations Bailenson created involved a virtual, gaping pit in the middle of a simulated “room” with a board laid across it. Test subjects, outfitted in full VR gear, were instructed to walk on the board across the pit. Even though they knew consciously that the pit wasn’t real (because they had seen the real-world version) they still reacted as if the pit were really there. Some teetered uncertainly, some fell down, some ran away, some screamed in fear—a testament to the power of digital illusions.