What’s behind the positive academic research verdict on virtual reality?

New research sheds further light on the need to manage virtual reality simulations with great care. But academic studies suggest that when VR is done right, there are plenty of positives

Virtual reality (VR) is a hot media button right now. It receives nearly as much press attention as AI. But what does the academic research community have to say about its capacity to enhance or erode our working lives? Research consistently shows that using VR can significantly improve things, but it all depends on how virtual reality situations are managed.

New research by Luis Mejia-Puig and Tilanka Chandrasekera of the University of Florida (2023), published in the Journal of Interior Design, provides insight into the sort of management that can be required.

The researchers assessed the effects on mental workload caused by how individuals visualise themselves in VR using a virtual body, typically represented by use of avatars. The study revealed that more detailed visual representation of the virtual body increased the sensation of being there, but contributed extraneous cognitive load that can hinder the task at hand. The findings can guide interior designers in selecting the type of virtual body they should use for their immersive VR experiences.

Realism is important

This 2023 research builds on prior studies examining the best ways to ‘do’ virtual reality. Investigators have found, for example, that being realistic, not surprisingly, is important (Newman, Gatersleben, Wyles and Ratcliffe, 2022): ‘High realism VR environments provided a greater sense of presence and restoration. Realism is important, particularly for environmental restoration research. . . more realistic VR environments evoked more positive affective and serenity responses, as well as a greater sense of presence. . . The level of realism that can be attained with VR does impact affective responses and perceptions.’

When virtual reality is being used for research purposes, the inclusion of human figures in the images presented is important (Obeidat and Jaradat, 2022). Adding scents to virtual experiences is useful (Flavian, Ibanez-Sanchez, and Orus, 2021). Sabiniewicz and co-workers (2021) determined that ‘Virtual scenarios tended to be remembered as more pleasant when presented with congruent odours [i.e., rose scent with the rose garden].’ Sound in virtual reality simulations is also important (Rudi, 2021): ‘Visitors considered sound essential to the high degree of realism they experienced in the hybrid virtual environment, in the sense of “being there”.’

Where virtual reality is experienced is important, according to research done by Kingstone and Gallup (2019); this revealed that ‘the mere presence of another person in real-life [in the actual physical room where people are wearing VR goggles, for example] can dramatically alter behavioural responses in VR’. Similarly, Zhang, Yang, Jin, and Li (2021) determined ‘that both the virtual and real-world environments have an impact on distance judgment in VR. Especially, the real-world environment where a person is physically located during a VR experience influences the person’s distance estimation in VR.’

The same effects

All the effort required to ‘do virtual reality right’ are justified. Here are some sample findings from related research. Acemyan and Kortum (2018) determined that we respond in virtual spaces as we do in real ones. Virtual indoor biophilic spaces affect us just as ‘real’ ones do.  Yin, Zhu, MacNaughton, Allen and Spengler (2018) found that when people spent time in real spaces and exact virtual recreations of the same spaces ‘participants experiencing biophilic environment virtually had similar physiological and cognitive responses as when experiencing the actual environment. This gives rise to the possibility of reducing stress and improving cognition by using virtual reality to provide exposures to natural elements in a variety of indoor settings where access to nature may not be possible’.

‘Virtual reality can provide exposures to natural elements in a variety of indoor settings where access to nature may not be possible…’

Browning and colleagues (2020) conclude that ‘Nature exposure in virtual reality (VR) can provide emotional wellbeing benefits for people who cannot access the outdoors’. Mattila, Korhonen, Poyry, Hauru, Holopainen and Parvinen (2020) share that their research indicates that ‘VR technology could have an effective restorative function during a school or work day when there is no access to highly restorative natural environments’. Latini, Di Giuseppe and D’Orazio (2023) conducted research in real and immersive office spaces and report ‘no significant results variation between real and virtual offices’.

In summary, Naz, Kopper, McMahan, and Nadin and colleagues (2017) found, using a series of studies, that ‘data from the experiments confirmed the hypothesis that perceivable emotional aspects of real-world spaces could be successfully generated through simulation of design attributes in the virtual space.’ The academic community appears convinced by VR but it’s all in how the technology is managed.

Read more of the latest research insights from Sally Augustin in Research Roundup, her regular column in the Innovation Zone here.

Research sources

Claudia Acemyan and Philip Kortum. 2018. ‘Does the Type of Presentation Medium Impact Assessments of the Built Environment?  An Examination of Environmental, Usability Ratings Across Three Modes of Presentation.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol..56, pp. 30-35.

Matthew Browning, Katherine Mimnaugh, Carena van Riper, Heidemarie Laurent and Steven LaValle.  2020. ‘Can Simulated Nature Support Mental Health? Comparing Short, Single-Does of 360-Degree Nature Videos in Virtual Reality with the Outdoors.’ Frontiers in Psychology.

‘Experiments in Different “Worlds”’. 2019. Observer, vol. 32, no. 3, p. 45.

Carlos Flavian, Sergio Ibanez-Sanchez, and Carlos Orus. 2021. ‘The Influence of Scent on Virtual Reality Experiences:  The Role of Aroma-Content Congruence.’ Journal of Business Research, vol. 123, pp. 289-301.

Arianna Latini, Elisa Di Giuseppe, and Marco D’Orazio.  2023. ‘Immersive Virtual vs Real Office Environments:  A Validation Study for Productivity, Comfort and Behavioural Research.’ Building and Environment, vol. 230, 109996.

Osmo Mattila, Arto Korhonen, Essi Poyry, Kaisa Hauru, Jani Holopainen, and Petri Parvinen. 2020. ‘Restoration in a Virtual Reality Forest Environment.’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 107, 106295.

Luis Mejia-Puig and Tilanka Chandrasekera.  2023. ‘The Presentation of Self in Virtual Reality: A Cognitive Load Study.’ Journal of Interior Design, vol. 48, no. 1.

Asma Naz, Regis Kopper, Ryan McMahan, and Mihai Nadin. 2017. ‘Emotional Qualities of VR Space.’ IEEE Virtual Reality Conference, March 18-22, Los Angeles, CA.

Newman, B. Gatersleben, K. Wyles, and E. Ratcliffe. 2022. ‘The Use of Virtual Reality in Environment Experiences and the Importance of Realism.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 79. 101733.

Bushra Obeidat and Esra’a Jaradat. 2022. ‘The Influence of Virtual Human Representations on First-Year Architecture Students’ Perceptions of Digitally Designed Spaces: A Pilot Study.’ Business Research and Information, vol. 50, no. 8, pp. 845-858.

Joran Rudi. 2021. ‘Designing Soundscapes for Presence in Virtual Reality Exhibitions: A Study of Visitor Experiences.’ Visitor Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 121-136.

Agnieszka Sabiniewicz, Elena Schaefer, Guducu Cagdas, Cedric Manesse, Moustafa Bensafi, Nadejda Krasteva, Gabriele Nelles, and Thomas Hummell.  2021.“Smells Influence Perceived Pleasantness but Not Memorization of a Visual Virtual Environment.’ I-Perception, vol. 12, no. 2.

Jie Yin, Shihao Zhu, Piers MacNaughton, Joseph Allen, and John Spengler. 2018. ‘Physiological and Cognitive Performance of Exposure to Biophilic Indoor Environment.’ Building and Environment, vol. 32, pp. 255-262.

Junjun Zhang, Xiaoyan Yang, Zhenlan Jin, and Ling Li. 2021. ‘Distance Estimation in Virtual Reality is Affected By Both the Virtual and the Real-World Environments.’ i-Perception, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 1-16.

Sally Augustin is a practicing environmental design psychologist and editor of Research Design Connections, based in Chicago. She provides regular scientific commentary for the Academy’s Innovation Zone on new academic research in work and workplace.
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