Do you ever occasionally catch yourself in a memory, only to realize that your perspective has changed? Last night, I found myself replaying a fairly mundane memory when I realized, to my surprise, I was replaying the memory from the third person perspective. It’s unlikely that this was the first time that I had ever done this, but it was the first time that I became particularly aware of it.
As it turns out, the perspective that we use to represent ourselves in our minds is dynamic and dependent on a number of different factors. A Google search for “Thinking in the third person” returns a slew of articles praising the benefits of talking or thinking about one’s self from an outsider’s view, a psychological process called “self-distancing”.
According to a 2010 research study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, self-distancing and the ability to view past events as an observer appears to increase one’s self-awareness and better understand the influence that one has over a situation; another study from 2009 suggests that a reliving memories from a first-person perspective may lead to heightened emotional responses that increase activity in a region of the brain where excessive activity is linked to depression.
In virtual reality design conversations, a huge emphasis is placed on first person perspective, which makes sense for many of today’s applications where the player is experiencing or performing a task as they would in the physical world. Many 360 degree videos are shot with the expectation that the viewer is an actual physical entity within a world, and while a number of games, such as Lucky’s Tale and Chronos, utilize a third person perspective, it’s usually a mechanic that is implemented to lend itself to unlocking more consistent or comfortable gameplay, according to the developers.
When I spent more time evaluating my perspective in memories, I came to a conclusion that I’ve found is shared by people close to me: when I think about specific events that I’ve been a part of, I tend to take a third person view, but when I think about a specific feeling or emotional state that I’ve experienced, it’s much more likely to take the form of a first-person memory.
The idea of changing perspectives within an immersive environment in order to produce different cognitive behaviors in the user is a fascinating area of research that hasn’t (from what I’ve seen) been explored often in the virtual reality experiences of today – but what’s there is promising. A research paper published earlier this month found that women who experienced an “out of body” VR experience reported a lower fear of death, and while the sample size of 32 women was an admittedly small one, this study demonstrates how we can expect virtual reality applications, particularly ones that utilize dynamic perspectives, to unveil an increasing wealth of information about the varying cognitive effects our environment has on us.
Much of the guidance coming out around designing and developing virtual reality applications in the past three years has focused heavily on the ideas of “presence” – i.e. how believable a user’s experience is – and autonomy, two important considerations for a comfortable VR app. Increasingly, though, these principles are assumed as being characteristic of immersive applications, and topics around design can focus more heavily on evaluating the types of cognitive experiences an application could have on a user. Beyond particular stories, experiences, or emotions that creators put into their experiences exist much more nuanced and powerful mental processes that underlie a given virtual world and what happens within it.
While reflecting on the transition between in-memory first- and third-person perspective, I spent a bit of time considering how 3D worlds grant us “God Mode” to, quite literally, switch between different perspectives, and how this practice could translate into greater control over the cognitive responses within our physical brains. Virtual worlds, such as High Fidelity, enable users to move seamlessly between watching and inhabiting avatars, while maintaining autonomy over the physical representation of the self; third-person cameras more easily capture the experience of being within a virtual world to an external viewer and are quickly becoming the norm for mixed-reality green screen trailers of popular VR apps. As developers and designers are able to access and experiment more with the technology available to them, I suspect we’ll see an increasing amount of research done in how these experiences unlock a greater understanding of the human brain.
In a world where heightened emotional response and conflict appears to be an increasingly polarizing problem, virtual reality has an opportunity – and, some would argue, a responsibility – to create applications and environments where users are able to supplement and surpass the limitations of physical experiences in order to reach higher levels of understanding and critical analysis. It may turn out that a way to handle in-world harassment, as an example, is to have the offender both experience and observe their behaviors through capturing multiple perspectives.
All of that said, defining these viewpoints within a virtual world as being purely experiential or observational is a disservice to the true impact that varying degrees of a particular outlook may provide to a user. It is likely that virtual reality experiences will continue to utilize both perspectives within a single experience to drive forward narrative, comfort, and, to some extent, elicit a specific cognitive reaction from a user. Additionally, the mere act of having influence over an avatar within a virtual space seems to indicate that there will always be a degree of ownership of the character, regardless of where the camera is placed, so further research is needed to identify where the bounds of autonomy and emotional response begin and end with digital recreations of ourselves.
One such example that comes to mind is the camera shift shown in Halo and other first person shooter games when a player’s character dies: regardless of the player’s chosen camera-follow distance, death results in the removal of the player’s body from the camera and shows the body collapsing dramatically. This perspective change alters the player’s subconscious understanding of what has transpired – “This death is not mine, but my character’s” – and research around the effects of self-distancing may indicate that the change is significant to the player. We don’t really have the data to know anything with certainty yet, but the improvement of BCI technologies, combined with this new generation of affordable VR, will enable more research to be done in this area in the very near future.
While we still have quite a way to go to fully understand the implications and offerings of the implementation of dynamic perspectives in virtual environments, I find the early indicators fascinating and compelling to explore further. Fundamentally, virtual reality is enabling us to push the boundaries of the human experience, and cognitively, we’re in for a wild ride. Creators should take care to recognize and respect the power that this medium holds, but to also explore it and help us collectively understand the full opportunity that lies ahead.