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MPI opens virtual reality lab
From now on, researchers at the MPI for Psycholinguistics can study language in more complex settings, that is, in a virtual reality world. On January 11, 2010, the institute gathered for the official opening of the first virtual reality lab in the world of psycholinguistics. MPI's Technical Group, especially Gerd Klaas and Albert Russel, spent over a year developing the groundbreaking experimental facility that has cost almost half a million euros.
Jan 12, 2010
Traditionally, psycholinguistic experiments have placed participants in an impoverished environment, where they interact with single words or sentences on a computer screen. Yet, language in the real world is more than words. Listeners rely on cues from their physical and social environments to make sense of what they hear. Speakers mobilise their bodies and physical objects in concert with their linguistic resources to communicate their thoughts. In the virtual realm, researchers can simulate some of this rich context, to study how language processing is shaped by our interactions with the physical and social world.
Exploring new territory
'We use subwoofers that make the floor shake to create the illusion of motion', says Daniel Casasanto, the researcher spearheading the VR enterprise. In a first experiment people are riding in a digital golf cart through a virtual supermarket. As participants talk with their virtual guide, named 'Virtuo', they subtly change their speech patterns to match his. This change, called ‘accommodation’, has been resistant to experimental study in the past according to Laura Staum Casasanto, who is conducting the study in collaboration with Daniel Casasanto and Kyle Jasmin. ‘Accommodation is inherently conversational, but as soon as you introduce two speakers into the mix you lose experimental control,’ says Staum Casasanto. ‘That is, unless one of the conversational partners is a virtual agent.’
A whole new world
When people put on the VR goggles the physical world disappears, and their physical bodies seem to disappear as well. Recent experiments by Casasanto and colleagues show that people with different bodies process language differently. The VR lab will advance this research. Language users can be given one set of virtual bodily characteristics or another, and the features of their digital body (or ‘avatar’) are limited only by the imagination.