Participant responses to virtual agents in immersive virtual environments
This thesis is concerned with interaction between people and virtual humans in the context of highly immersive virtual environments (VEs). Empirical studies have shown that virtual humans (agents) with even minimal behavioural capabilities can have a significant emotional impact on participants of immersive virtual environments (IVEs) to the extent that these have been used in studies of mental health issues such as social phobia and paranoia. This thesis focuses on understanding the impact on the responses of people to the behaviour of virtual humans rather than their visual appearance. There are three main research questions addressed. First, the thesis considers what are the key nonverbal behavioural cues used to portray a specific psychological state. Second, research determines the extent to which the underlying state of a virtual human is recognisable through the display of a key set of cues inferred from the behaviour of real humans. Finally, the degree to which a perceived psychological state in a virtual human invokes responses from participants in immersive virtual environments that are similar to those observed in the physical world is considered. These research questions were investigated through four experiments. The first experiment focused on the impact of visual fidelity and behavioural complexity on participant responses by implementing a model of gaze behaviour in virtual humans. The results of the study concluded that participants expected more life-like behaviours from more visually realistic virtual humans. The second experiment investigated the detrimental effects on participant responses when interacting with virtual humans with low behavioural complexity. The third experiment investigated the differences in responses of participants to virtual humans perceived to be in varying emotional states. The emotional states of the virtual humans were portrayed using postural and facial cues. Results indicated that posture does play an important role in the portrayal of affect however the behavioural model used in the study did not fully cover the qualities of body movement associated with the emotions studied. The final experiment focused on the portrayal of affect through the quality of body movement such as the speed of gestures. The effectiveness of the virtual humans was gauged through exploring a variety of participant responses including subjective responses, objective physiological and behavioural measures. The results show that participants are affected and respond to virtual humans in a significant manner provided that an appropriate behavioural model is used.