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Avatars for language science: How virtual reality enables more realistic experiments

Avatars are all around us: they represent real people online and colonise new worlds in the movies. In science, their role has been more limited. But avatars can be extremely useful in linguistics, new research shows. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics use virtual avatars to investigate how real people behave in interaction. The method makes it possible to study with great precision how people adjust to each other in conversation.
Avatars for language science: How virtual reality enables more realistic experiments

An exciting question in psycholinguistics is how people adapt their speech to each other in conversation. The research method of choice has long been the “confederate”: a conversational partner who, without the other participant knowing, has been instructed to speak in certain ways. However, some aspects of speaking cannot be studied in this way, for instance minute changes in speech rate or intonation. Evelien Heyselaar, Peter Hagoort and Katrien Segaert have exchanged the human confederate for a virtual reality avatar, opening up exciting new possibilities for studying the dynamics of dialogue.

Best of both worlds
To get around the problems of human confederates, some studies have used pre-recorded sound files instead of confederates. However, speaking to a sound recording can feel very different from speaking in a face-to-face context, and indeed studies have shown that language behavior is different when interacting with a sound recording compared to a video. Heyselaar and colleagues set out to determine whether virtual reality could be used to combine the best of the confederate and sound-only methods.

Virtual reality makes it possible to create a physical presence, an avatar, whose behaviour and speech patterns we can control to the tiniest detail. Heyselaar and colleagues decided to test the effectiveness of this avatar using syntactic priming, a phenomenon in which participants adapt their grammar usage to match that of the other. Because syntactic priming is well understood, it provides the ideal testing ground for an implementation using virtual reality.

Human-like avatars
Recent work has suggested that the degree to which people adapt can be influenced by their opinion of the person they are interacting with. Heyselaar and colleagues invited people to do a card game with either a human confederate, a human-like avatar, or a computer-like avatar. The two avatars looked identical and differed only in their behaviour: the human-like avatar showed realistic facial expressions such as smiles, eyebrow raises and eye contact, while the computer-like avatar had none of these.

As predicted, the human-like avatar worked just as well as the human confederate: both resulted in the same amount of grammatical adaptation, whereas the computer-like avatar did not. These results suggest that future conversational experiments can use virtual reality avatars and investigate behaviour in ways that were previously impossible.

More information

  • The authors are in the Neurobiology of Language Department
  • Heyselaar, E., Hagoort, P., & Segaert, K. (2015). In dialogue with an avatar, language behavior is identical to dialogue with a human partner. Behavior research methods, 1-15. doi: 10.3758/s13428-015-0688-7
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


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