Virtual reality: A game-changing method for the language sciences

This paper introduces virtual reality as an experimental method for the language sciences and provides a review of recent studies using the method to answer fundamental, psycholinguistic research questions. It is argued that virtual reality demonstrates that ecological validity and experimental control should not be conceived of as two extremes on a continuum, but rather as two orthogonal factors. Benefits of using virtual reality as an experimental method include that in a virtual environment, as in the real world, there is no artificial spatial divide between participant and stimulus. Moreover, virtual reality experiments do not necessarily have to include a repetitive trial structure or an unnatural experimental task. Virtual agents outperform experimental confederates in terms of the consistency and replicability of their behaviour, allowing for reproducible science across participants and research labs. The main promise of virtual reality as a tool for the experimental language sciences, however, is that it shifts theoretical focus towards the interplay between different modalities (e.g., speech, gesture, eye gaze, facial expressions) in dynamic and communicative real-world environments, complementing studies that focus on one modality (e.g. speech) in isolation.
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