Spoiler Alert: Not everyone feels a sense of presence when experiencing Virtual Reality. Research shows that age, gender, cognitive ability, imagination, and personality can affect how one reacts to VR.
When we try VR apps and games in the office, I am always surprised by the different reactions people have to the same app on the same device. Why? The simple answer is that everyone has different tastes and preferences. But according to recent research, some people may be predisposed to experience a sense of presence and immersion in VR, while others do not. (Presence, in case you didn’t read my previous blog post, is the feeling of actually being there in a digital experience.)
Kids. Let’s start with kids. When children play, they use their imaginations to pretend that a cardboard box is a racecar, or the red blocks are a farm. They become completely engaged in their play and may lose track of their surroundings, so naturally one might guess that kids would also find VR immersive. When you put kids into a VR experience, however, their emotional responses, compared to adults, can be “off the charts.” In other words, they feel a sense of presence way more than adults. In one study, kids and adults were put into a VR rollercoaster simulator while researchers measured their brain activity. Adults could control their emotions using a sort of self-reflection technique that provided some emotional distance between themselves and the stimulating virtual experience. Kids, on the other hand, did not know how to use these same “meta-cognitive” strategies to regulate their emotions.
Researchers explain these differences by suggesting that brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, that regulate our feelings of presence and allow us to control our emotions, don’t fully mature until adulthood. This means that children (and even younger teens) have difficulty convincing the emotion centers of their brains that an immersive experience is NOT real, which makes them particularly susceptible to feelings of extreme presence in VR. The point is that just because you’ve let your kid watch Friday the 13th on TV (ugh) doesn’t mean that it’s OK for them to experience it in VR. For immersive tech like VR, even mature kids don’t yet possess the neural “hardware” to control their emotional responses.
Women VS Men. Interestingly, a few studies have found sex differences regarding feelings of presence. One explanation researchers offer is that females empathize with virtual characters more readily than males, which allows women to feel higher levels of presence. Not everyone agrees, naturally. More research needs to be done to determine whether there really is a consistent gender difference in presence and why.
Cognition. Cognitive ability, which includes things like general intelligence, attention, and spatial skills, may also impact a sense of presence. Some researchers speculate that people with higher attention levels experience higher presence, perhaps because they are better able to concentrate on the virtual world and “tune out” the real world. Another possibility is that people with higher spatial reasoning skills enjoy VR because they are more easily able to process the information in a 3D virtual environment. Males (on average) have better spatial skills than females, thus researchers have suggested that spatial reasoning may be at the crux of any gender differences in feelings of presence.
Imagination. An individual’s level of creative imagination is another factor researchers have examined in explaining individual differences in reactions to VR. (This may be a reason why children are so adept at feeling presence). Research seems to indicate that the more imaginative a person is, the more likely they are to feel presence. One possible explanation is that people who can easily imagine situations tend to mentally fill in any gaps in detail for the virtual world, thus making it seem more realistic and more immersive.
Personality. Finally, there are several personality traits that relate to feelings of presence. First, a person’s willingness to suspend disbelief seems to be a factor. Can you be hypnotized? If so, you’ll probably love VR. On the other hand, do you get nervous or anxious in new situations? Then you are probably not the best candidate for VR. This may be because nervous people’s negative thoughts distract them from paying attention to and processing their surroundings. Finally, it seems that introversion/extraversion might relate to feelings of presence, with extraverted people feeling more presence on average than introverted people.
Please keep in mind that much of this research is really new, and all of it needs to be replicated. It does, however, provide some guideposts about who the early adopters of VR might be. More importantly, it will help us understand how to design VR experiences for everyone, even folks who aren’t predisposed to like or feel fully immersed when they first put on their Oculus Rift headset.