Have you ever thought about what it would be like to meet yourself? You can – in virtual reality. Researchers investigated what happens when people encounter a virtual representation of their own past, with surprising results.
By Markus von der Heyde
Typically, virtual reality (VR) applications try to mimic reality as closely as possible by virtually modelling the environment. This requires highly efficient computers and sophisticated graphical displays. As an alternative approach, researchers have now designed a VR experience to match our perceptual abilities.
To do so, they sent a remote-controlled walking robot around a room taking pictures with a 360° camera while study participants were already present. The researchers afterwards displayed these images in a virtual reality headset, allowing human controllers to take the perspective of the robot while controlling its motion. When controllers walked around the room, the pictures taken earlier were shown, so that they were able to see themselves in the past. Participants naturally recognized themselves and relived the situation the camera had recorded earlier.
Experiencing memories through virtual reality – a “magic pensieve”?
In previous VR experiments, when encountering a perceptual or cognitive conflict, the participants’ awareness was generally found to jump straight back into the physical world, i.e. into being in a lab. However, in this case, the awareness of the controllers jumped to a memory within the simulation without falling back into the lab environment.
In their paper, recently published in i-com, the researchers compare this experience to the “magic pensieve” in the Harry Potter series, which allows wizards to elicit and experience a flashback of their own episodic memory. Even though participants encountered a cognitive conflict (observing oneself from the outside), they remained highly immersed in the experience. According to the authors of the study, there has been no tangible evidence for or systematic research into this phenomenon so far, opening up potential new lines of research.
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