Body relative

In our Future Reality research at NYU, we’ve been trying all sorts of things. One set of experiments has involved embodied conversations between people whereby we create the illusion that participants vary greatly in scale.

For example, in one experiment I found myself shrunk down to about 6 inches tall. I seemed to be standing on a table, so that the room around me seemed vast and cavernous, the walls and ceiling impossibly far away.

People who were of “normal” size appeared as huge, giant creatures who loomed against the sky, peering down at me as from a great height. The effect was quite compelling.

One question that comes up when you create such experiences is what, exactly, should the subjective experience be for each participant. After some experimentation, we came to an interesting conclusion.

If you find yourself virtually transformed into a six inch tall version of yourself standing on a table, then the most effective subjective experience does not create the impression that you have shrunk down in size. Rather, it creates the impression that the world itself has blown up to vast dimensions, and that you have not changed at all.

For example, the audio in the room will feel the most natural if it seems to be a vast chamber, hundreds of feet across. When the “normal” sized people speak, you should hear booming and echoing voices, as though the sound is traveling across a great distance, and bouncing off the walls of a giant space.

In effect, you are experiencing a different physics. From your perspective, sound still travels at 1100 feet per second. But because the entire world has become impossibly large, the time it takes for that sound to travel from one end of the room to that other is creating a noticable echo.

Meanwhile, the “normal” sized people should hear your voice as tinny and lacking bass, because you are a tiny being whose body contains no large resonant cavities. You will still sound normal to yourself, but to them you will sound like a small creature.

The take-away lesson is this: As we try to transform ourselves to travel through virtual worlds, our subjective experience will always be body relative. If we become tiny or huge in these alternate worlds, the most natural interface will be one that seems to keep us the same, while changing the entire universe around us.

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