Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Estimating Distance in Real and Virtual Environments: Does Order Make a Difference?

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Estimating Distance in Real and Virtual Environments: Does Order Make a Difference?

Article excerpt

In this investigation, we examined how the order in which people experience real and virtual environments influences their distance estimates. Participants made two sets of distance estimates in one of the following conditions: (1) real environment first, virtual environment second; (2) virtual environment first, real environment second; (3) real environment first, real environment second; or (4) virtual environment first, virtual environment second. In Experiment 1, the participants imagined how long it would take to walk to targets in real and virtual environments. The participants' first estimates were significantly more accurate in the real than in the virtual environment. When the second environment was the same as the first environment (real-real and virtual-virtual), the participants' second estimates were also more accurate in the real than in the virtual environment. When the second environment differed from the first environment (real-virtual and virtual-real), however, the participants' second estimates did not differ significantly across the two environments. A second experiment, in which the participants walked blindfolded to targets in the real environment and imagined how long it would take to walk to targets in the virtual environment, replicated these results. These subtle yet persistent order effects suggest that memory can play an important role in distance perception.

Virtual environments have gained widespread use in recent years as a tool for studying human behavior (e.g., Fajen & Warren, 2004; Loomis, Blascovich, & Beall, 1999; Plumert, Kearney, & Cremer, 2004). Problems ranging from how children make road-crossing decisions (Plumert et al., 2004) to how adults respond to social situations (Pertaub, Slater, & Baker, 2001) have been studied using various kinds of immersive virtual environments. Virtual environments have also been used as a tool for training new skills, particularly in cases in which training in the real environment can be risky or dangerous. For example, immersive virtual environments have been used for training firefighters, medical doctors, and military personnel (e.g., D. M. Johnson & Stewart, 1999). Two questions arise when virtual environments are used for such research and training purposes: (1) How well does perception in virtual environments correspond to perception in the real environment? and (2) How does experience in a virtual environment affect subsequent perception in the real environment and vice versa? To date, much of the work on perception in virtual environments has focused on determining how well distance perception in virtual environments corresponds to that in the real environment. Relatively little work, however, has addressed the issue of how perception might change as a result of experience in virtual environments. We addressed both of these issues in the present investigation by examining how people perceive distance in real and virtual environments both before and after experience in each environment.

Studies of distance perception in the real environment typically use visually directed action tasks in which participants carry out actions toward previously seen targets. The gold standard in this area of research is blindfolded walking, in which participants view a target and then immediately attempt to walk to the target while blindfolded (Loomis, Da Silva, Fujita, & Fukusima, 1992; Philbeck & Loomis, 1997; Rieser, Ashmead, Taylor, & Youngquist, 1990). A number of recent studies comparing blindfolded walking in real and virtual environments have shown that people are generally quite accurate at walking without vision to previously seen targets in the real environment (e.g., Creem-Regehr, Willemsen, Gooch, & Thompson, 2005; Interrante, Anderson, & Ries, 2006; Jones, Swan, Singh, Kolstad, & Ellis, 2008; Messing & Durgin, 2005; Swan, Jones, Kolstad, Livingston, & Smallman, 2007; Waller & Richardson, 2008; Witmer & Sadowski, 1998), particularly within what is called action space (up to about 30 m; Cutting & Vishton, 1995). …

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