Remote presence and cooperation via avatars

How does co-operation with others work when face-to-face interaction is moved to the virtual world and physical presence replaced with an avatar playing field that opens up through virtual reality headsets? The University of Oulu is interested in exploring virtual reality in technology and in human sciences.

text Terhi Suominen

Real-time face-to-face interaction between people does not necessarily require physical presence in the same place. When a person participating in a meeting puts on a virtual reality headset and sits down at their desk, virtually created reality brings the participants to the same table from any part of the world.

The meeting situation described above is one of the visions for utilising virtual reality that interests Professor of English Philology Pentti Haddington from the University of Oulu.

“The immersive experience that occurs when a person seems to be inside a video offers new content for studying interaction”, says Haddington.

“In the real world, interaction between people is nuanced and people have different resources for encountering each other. I’m interested in how an avatar and virtual world environment function in this context”, explains Haddington.

In virtual reality, the user moves and acts as a computer-generated avatar. Haddington is fascinated by how transferring face-to-face interaction between people to the virtual world will work. Human sciences research brings the dimension of user experience and working together to the new technology.

A virtual concert shows the way

Videos taken with a 360-degree camera are one way of immersing in virtual reality. They allow the user to get inside and explore the views.

In September, the University of Oulu’s Leaf Laboratory studied a distance concert in which 30 test subjects took part in a gig by the heavy metal band Amorphis. The participants were able to watch the concert right from the stage where a 360-degree camera was located.

“A year and a half ago we began to consider what kind of project activity could be developed around virtual reality research”, explains Haddington.

Studying virtual reality also requires technical expertise. That exists in Oulu University’s Center for Ubiquitous Computing research unit. Postdoctoral researcher Matti Pouke is particularly interested in the nausea caused by virtual reality headsets, which is also known as cyber sickness.

“The virtual concert provided a good opportunity to collect data about a live event watched via VR headsets, and it’s also interesting to survey the user experiences.”

The problem with VR headsets has been the nausea that they can cause. Motion sickness was not observed in the preliminary research results. However, users did report dizziness and eye strain.

“We were a bit surprised by the dizziness”, says Pouke.

A virtual concert was studied in the LeaF laboratory in September when 30 testees participated in a metal band gig with the help of virtual glasses. The participants were able to watch the concert right from the stage where a 360-degree camera was located.

Co-operation and analysis in the virtual world

Video material taken with a 360 camera also offers new possibilities for processing research data.

“A researcher can use virtual reality headsets to get ‘inside’ the video, mark interesting elements and leave video messages for other researchers. These can then be sent to a colleague on the other side of the world”, says Haddington as he considers the future possibilities.

Pentti Haddington is already thinking about a target for further research.

“I have a vision of studying virtual environments where groups could meet in real time.” A good example of this is school groups.

Learning groups could first work together in the real world and then move to a virtual environment, where learning could continue and become deeper through co-operation with other school groups.

“This kind of project would be a great example of multidisciplinary research – we would need technology, learning and interaction researchers”, visualises Haddington.

Matti Pouke also highlights the opportunities of augmented reality.

“The demand seems to exist. Once the technology develops to a point where the same devices can use both virtual and augmented reality, it will be easy to find applications.”

Both Haddington and Pouke are enthusiastic about multidisciplinary research in the area of virtual reality.

“I’m really interested in co-operating with observation psychology researchers on cyber sickness”, says Pouke.

And what will everyday virtual reality be like in the future?

“Whether or not people start using virtual reality on a daily basis depends a lot on how the price of technology develops and on application development. There are plenty of possibilities in working life, teaching and daily interaction, but the usability of technology will be a decisive factor”, states Haddington.

A lot is expected from the new technologies, but Pouke encourages people to keep the nature of major technology breakthroughs in mind. “We tend to overestimate the short-term effects and underestimate the long-term effects.”


Read more about virtual experience research: The modern experience researched at University of Oulu in a rocking fashion!


Photo: Professor of English Philology Pentti Haddington is interested in how to transfer the face-to-face interaction to the virtual world. Photo: Mikko Törmänen

Last updated: 27.3.2018