Psychology News – A study finds that people prefer Virtual Reality interactions in therapy when it comes to disclosure of negative emotions. Inferring that client comfort and satisfaction in therapy using VR may rival face-to-face interaction with more sophisticated technology, it looks to newer avenues in online therapy.
A study led by Edith Cowan University (ECU) inferred that people are more inclined to negative disclosure in therapy if it involved VR communication. To compare it with analogous face-to-face interactions, the participants (fifty-two under-graduate psychology students) interacted in HMD-based virtual reality with realistic motion-captured avatars in real-time. The study procedure contained two phases, namely, a getting acquainted phase, and a self-disclosure phase. Anticipating the next major technological evolution for human-computer mediated communication, the study strives to make further investigation into how aspects of the avatar (fidelity of motion and graphics) impact user experience and the potentiality of VR for therapeutic settings.
The findings—published in Frontiers in Virtual Reality—were drawn from analysis of post-conversation ratings about enjoyment, closeness, self-disclosure, comfort, and awkwardness. There wasn’t much difference between VR communication and its face-to-face counterpart, except in two cases. The former was found more preferable when it came to disclosure of negative emotions, the latter when it came to eye-contact and associated physiological arousal, particularly perceived closeness. For positive disclosure, 10% of the participants preferred VR for self-disclosure, comfort, and relaxation. For negative disclosure, 30% preferred VR on the same facets. However, post-conversational declarations reinstated a preference for traditional therapy.
While the study acknowledged the barriers for computer-mediated therapeutic communication, it approached positively the evidence to suggest that sophisticated face and full-body motion capture of avatars can make social interaction in VR a similar experience to face-to-face interaction. This bodes well for online therapy as well as for future platforms for casual social interaction in VR such as Facebook Horizon and others. In the next five years—with development in hardware (such as affordable powerful computers, VR headsets and peripherals) and user-friendly VR interaction software platforms—VR social interaction would outgrow its current niche.
In fact, Dr Shane Roger, the psychology and communication researcher of the study, optimistically stated, “This technology has the potential for broad application across a number of areas such as casual conversation, business, tourism, education and therapy.”
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Rogers, S. L., Broadbent, R., Brown, J., Fraser, A., & Speelman, C. P. (2022). Realistic motion avatars are the future for social interaction in virtual reality. Frontiers in Virtual Reality, 2. https://doi.org/10.3389/frvir.2021.750729