Virtual Embodiment Lab
The Google Cardboard—a small cardboard box headset that holds a smartphone—is the easiest way to experience virtual reality. By tapping the screen with a button built into the cardboard, a user can interact with virtual reality applications. The VEL uses the Google Cardboard also as the simplest way to engage in research. Its portability and expendability make it is readily useful.
The Oculus Rift is a full-spectrum system, which includes a headset, hand controls, audio, and sensors, that translates a user’s movements into virtual reality. The VEL recently used the Oculus Rift to perform a study on learning in a virtual environment. In this study, a subject would wear the headset and learn about the different phases of the moon. How well they learned was compared to others who learned on a desktop computer or paper. The team is now introducing multiple people into the virtual environment to examine the effects of avatars to see if learning increased when the virtual reality environment became social.
In another project, the lab is working in collaboration with Beijing Jia Tong University (BJTU) to connect students from Cornell and BJTU through virtual reality. The Oculus Rift has also been used in the Virtual Embodiment Lab’s companionship study. The study looked at the effect of social presence and environment on induced pain perception.
The HTC Vive and Vive Pro include a headset, hand controls, audio, and sensors. Users are immersed into a total virtual environment while wearing the headset and hand controllers. A video feed allows users to have a mixed-reality experience.
The VEL uses a tracking puck accessory that allows users to interact with digital content. The virtual object linked to the puck appears wherever it is placed, and users can move it around by moving the puck. Users wearing the headsets can jointly interact with objects in a shared space.
The InstaPro 360 and Garmin Verb are two devices that create a 360-degree video by recording a scene at multiple views and stitching the video together. These videos can be viewed with a headset, allowing the viewer to look around the entire scene. During the summer of 2018, the VEL helped Cornell Cooperative Extension create a series of videos with these cameras, interviewing farmers about challenges in New York State agriculture. Viewers of the videos have the ability to listen to an interview and see the surroundings, leading to greater understanding of the problems farmers face.
The HoloLens, on loan from Stanford, is an augmented reality headset. It allows the user to see their environment and digital content at the same time. Users can even interact with digital content with hand gestures. The device is untethered—no cords connect it to a computing system. It is at the forefront of virtual reality technology, and is in use by companies experimenting with business applications.
The Oculus Go is an untethered virtual reality headset. Users can interact in games, social media, and 360-degree experiences. The VEL is using the Oculus Go for several pilot studies, looking at health applications with novel embodiment—for example, changing the way users see their movements represented by an avatar.
Not long ago the idea that virtual reality could be accessible to the majority of the population seemed unlikely. With price drops in electrical components, smartphone ownership, and products such as Google Cardboard, virtual reality is becoming popular in households around the world. The Virtual Embodiment Lab (VEL) at Cornell University is exploring how virtual reality affects people who use it—how these people perceive themselves, others, and the world around them.
"We have always talked about how virtual reality has the potential to educate people, heal people, or just entertain," says Andrea Stevenson Won, Communication. "All of that potential means that if it can change people in useful ways, then we need to think about how it might change people in other ways—for good or bad. It's an urgent subject of study to understand the effect that virtual reality is having on people."
The lab uses several different devices to research virtual reality, from 360 degree videos to full virtual reality systems that allow a user to pick up objects and interact with others. Students are essential to the lab’s research and efficiency. They run experiments, create virtual worlds, and work with professors to answer research questions. The lab collaborates with people across Cornell, including faculty in the Department of Physics, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Cornell Cooperative Extension. Funded by the Center for Teaching Innovation, the lab is currently working with MannUFactory to make virtual reality equipment available to the broader Cornell community, especially for teaching purposes.
"The ability to feel embodied while in virtual reality is a profound experience, and these media experiences can alter people's perceptions of themselves and the world," says Andrea Stevenson Won. The Virtual Embodiment Lab was established in 2016.