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Virtual Sensing: Perceptual Illusions in the Age of Virtual Reality

Sat, September 2, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Sheraton Boston, Floor: 3, Exeter

Abstract

Virtual Reality (VR) has long been used in psychological research. Even before the current VR consumer boom, scientists have experimented with the technology’s potential as a research tool, therapeutic device, and training apparatus. This paper draws on ethnographic research with a perceptual psychology lab that has for several decades incorporated VR into its research practices. Most recently, this lab has sought to replicate classic perceptual illusions in VR. If our sight deceives us in the real world, will it do so in the virtual world as well? For the psychologists doing this research, they are entering a debate in the field about how we perceive the world and whether it is exclusively physiological or also influenced by our cognition. If an illusion can be replicated in VR – where the senses are under complete experimental control – something beyond these senses must be influencing perception. VR, then, becomes not simply a platform for research, but a tool to test perception itself. The concept of “illusion” will guide this paper, analyzing laboratory talks about the classic and VR iterations of these experiments and how in both cases researchers discuss “illusions” as a way of destabilizing “reality.” As perceptual psychologists test theories of how we sense the world, VR is both the ultimate experimental test bed but also part of the unresolved debate over the relationship between our selves, our environment, and our ability to distinguish what is real from what is not.

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