#576: Studying Anorexia Nervosa with VR Self-Avatars: Is Body Image a Matter of Perception or Attitude?

betty-mohlerDo patients with anorexia nervosa suffer from body image distortion due to how they perceive their body or is it due to attitudinal beliefs? Betty Mohler has been using VR technologies to study whether body representation is more perceptual or conceptual. She captures a 3D body scan of patients, and then uses algorithms to alter the body mass index of a virtual self-avatar from a range of plus and minus 20%. Patients then estimated their existing and desired body using a virtual mirror screen which tracked movements in real-time and showed realistic weight manipulations of photo-realistic virtual avatars. Mohler’s results challenge the existing assumption that patients with anorexia nervosa have visual distortions of their body, and that it’s possible that body image distortion is more driven by attitudinal factors where patients consider underweight bodies as more desirable and attractive.

Mohler works at the Space & Body Perception Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. She’s collaborates with philosopher of neuroscience Dr. Hong Yu Wong to research foundational questions about self perception like “Who am I?” Where am I? Where is the origin of my self? Where is the frame of reference? What is the essence of me? How do we know that there’s an external world? What does it mean to have a shared self where multiple people share the same body experience? What does it mean to have a body? How big is my body? Is it possible to be at multiple locations at once while in VR?

I interviewed Mohler for the third at the IEEE VR conference in Los Angeles this past March exploring all of these provocative questions (see my previous interviews on the uncanny valley and avatar stylization).


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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So over the last three years, I've been able to attend the premier academic virtual reality conference called the IEEE VR. And at each of those conferences, I had a chance to catch up with Betty Moeller of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. So the first couple of interviews I did with Betty, we were talking about avatar representation, the uncanny valley, and she's someone who's just really focusing on embodiment. She's been doing this research with people who have anorexia nervosa. They've been doing these body scans and seeing what is the impact of virtual reality, of how can you change your sense of self, what is your ideal weight, what role does an avatar representation have, and how we even are able to think and relate to other people. So we talk about all these various issues and dive into the philosophical implications of VR, how she's working with philosophers to guide her research, as well as the relationship between body in space and perception within virtual reality. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Betty Moeller happened on Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017 at the IEEE VR conference that was happening in Los Angeles, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:26.598] Betty Mohler: I'm Betty Moeller, and I'm at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. And for the past few years, I've led a group called Space and Body Perception. And I'm really trying to research what it means to have a body and how that changes our experience. of how we perceive and act on the world around us. And I primarily use virtual reality as a tool to play around with the experience of our body or the world to test out different theories on how we perceive and act in space.

[00:01:56.739] Kent Bye: Right. So, you know, I think that there's this theory of embodied cognition, which says that, you know, you have your mind, but you also have your body and you have your environment. And so I'm wondering if, depending on what avatar you have, does it change the way that you think and process about your experience? Or maybe you could, you know, just kind of talk about like, what is it that you're really finding the difference of what that avatar makes?

[00:02:20.640] Betty Mohler: So I mean, I think most of what I do is change the body in terms of body proportions, so changing it in terms of size. But recently we've started also changing the body in attributes, like for example, I mean, when you change the body in terms of size, you are going to make, for example, your legs longer or your arms longer or your body fatter or thinner. But for example, in the latter example, fatter or thinner, then you're changing your body in a way that also has top-down effects of cognition like well when I'm fatter maybe I dislike that body or maybe when I'm thinner I like it more or when it looks faster for example and so in a lot of my research I'm testing out more spatial properties of like if I have a bigger body or a taller body, does it change the way I see the space? But I'm doing more work and I'm hoping to move in the direction of what are my attitudes about my body? Especially because I think from our previous interviews you know I've been working with eating disorder patients. I work a lot with other patient populations that have either a dissatisfaction with their body or a disturbed sense of their body. And I'm quite interested in looking at the attitudinal factors like disliking your body or wishing that you had a different body.

[00:03:35.039] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think the previous times we've talked, you hadn't had any experimental results that we're ready to report on yet. And so when you're looking at these eating disorders or things like body dysmorphic disorder, what does virtual reality provide for people who may be suffering from these conditions?

[00:03:52.693] Betty Mohler: Well, I think it can provide a lot. So I think we're in early days about what it will provide. But as you know from Skip Rizzo's work that, you know, I think it has promise for exposure therapy because, you know, for example, eating disorder patients do do exposure therapy with real mirrors. And I think they can be replaced. And I hope we can play a part in that and replacing them with virtual mirrors. But I think what virtual reality technology as a whole, not just display technology, but virtual reality technology, they provide these clinicians and experimental neuroscientists with a tool to provide controlled stimuli, right? Because if what you're studying is how people perceive their bodies, then you can't just show them a, I think we're done with the days where you can just show them a diagram and say, is this the kind of shape of your body? So what we do is we've, over the last three years, we've scanned a hundred people. So about 25 of them have had anorexia nervosa. And the rest have been spanning the spectrum of BMI. So all the way down to, say, 18 BMI to 45 BMI. And we've scanned them. And by scanning them, I just mean like, I told you before, I call it connect on steroids. We take medical grade scanners and scan them and get a three dimensional shape of their body and the texture of their body. Such that when we show it back to them, they say that's me. And then what we do is we use psychophysical methods, which is pretty much just asking people to recognize their body in sort of clever paradigms, which shouldn't be affected by top-down effects like cognition. And we say, is this you, or is it fatter or thinner than you, so that we can get a sense of how they perceive these bodies. And we're studying whether or not people with anorexic neurosis really have a disturbed visual perception of their body. But in doing so, we're working with other people and also controlled people to try to compare them to. And I'm excited. So one thing that we found with the results is that, and it's still, we're still in progress with that work. But what we found is that when you use realistic stimuli of anorexic patients' bodies, that we don't see evidence that they visually perceive their body incorrectly. So we're working on publishing that now, and I'm excited to get that out there. But I think in our experience of that, that I've liked to move forward with, is that we know that from these clinical populations, that they have a disturbed sense of their body. And they're dissatisfied with their body. And there's no denying, even if they do visually perceive their body, say correctly, like what we've found in this one study, there's no denying that there's something wrong. Because they see their body as it is, and it is deathly thin. And so this body scanning technology of making an avatar of a person also lends itself well to asking them about how they feel about their body and how they feel about bodies in general, right? So what we're moving for in the future is to not only look at sensory perception, like how do they see their body, or there's a lot of research in the neuroscience literature about how they feel their body with touch, but we're also trying to move in a direction to take this VR technology, body scanning technology, motion capture technology, and make it easier to ask these special groups what they think about bodies in general. So things like what their perceived fattest body is or what they would like their body to be like, and we've done that as well. So we've asked them to create their ideal body, for example, which is a lot more emotionally loaded, right?

[00:07:16.544] Kent Bye: Yeah, maybe you could unpack that a little bit. I'm trying to get a sense of like the results that you got and what you make of it, the meaning in terms of You know, are they going into VR and you're able to show what their body looks like? Do you change and artificially simulate different body mass index to be able to change different levels to see how, at what degree they would say? Or, you know, what is the basic outcome? Like, what does the VR do before and after? You know, is it changing their perception or is it just reflecting that they have an accurate representation of their body?

[00:07:47.357] Betty Mohler: Yeah, it's just enabling us to really show them bodies that could be them. So of course, one of them is their actual scan, but then we use a statistical model to show them. So for example, if you're in our study, we'd scan you and then using mathematical algorithms, we would, you know, make a Kent that's fatter and thinner. And then we'd show that to you and actually ask you to tell us what you think of that body. And then what we can tell from that is, how likely you are to accept a body that's fatter than you or thinner than you, right? But essentially, if you're in our experiment, in one of our paradigms, that's basically, we give you a joystick and we just say, make that body yours. So adjust it until it's yours. And that's a very simple measure, but because we have a Kent that's, say, your weight, and a Kent with 10 pounds added on, or 15 pounds added on, and 15 pounds minus, then we can actually really get a sense of what you expect to see when you look in the mirror. So we really do put them. We don't use head-mounted displays. We're using, in this scenario, large screen displays. And so it's really like putting them in a mirror scenario. And I find it all very fascinating, because not just the eating disorder patients, but all of us, a real question comes up that's about, do we really see our bodies as they are? Might we all have some distortions in the way we experience our bodies? And I think you can't just stay at the sensory level there, because, I mean, you can, but it's important that, of course, we all do have clear distortions in the way we perceive our bodies, because, for example, I might be dissatisfied with my short legs, where you might be nervous about something at the moment because, you know, you forgot to shave or something, you know, and we have all these biases that are more at a cognitive level, right, where we're attending to something like our our shirt is itching us or what have you and so I think there's a lot of different levels of perceiving our body. that are playing into that. And as we were talking earlier today about emotions, I mean, it could also be in an emotional sense that we're experiencing our bodies. That's really guiding our attention. So if, you know, if we have a real negative view of our body, then perhaps it isn't that we're visually seeing our body differently, but that we're looking at different things or that our perception is sort of colored by the emotional mood that we have.

[00:10:03.319] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd like to have you expand on the emotional component a little bit more, because I feel like in looking at all the different approaches of people looking at virtual reality, that there's the gamers who are looking at agency, there's the neuroscientists who are looking at the mind and cognitive enhancement, but also with the body, virtual reality in general I think is sort of giving a new experience of embodiment. And I feel like, you know, on the narrative side, they're thinking about creating emotional engagement, but it's kind of pretty lacking on all the other different domains. I think it's sort of the last considered domain of, you know, the emotional component. And in talking to even some researchers here who pointed me to the book about Descartes reconsidered or what Descartes got wrong, It was essentially that there's a lot bigger part of our emotions when it comes into how we're even perceiving or seeing the world. So from your research or the students that are working with you, what can you tell me about the role of emotion?

[00:11:03.207] Betty Mohler: Well, I can say that as a computer scientist that ventured into the world of experimental psychology that for me, and I think a lot of my colleagues, it's not surprising that maybe I'd like to think about things in a very controlled way and think about the sensors and sensory input and the sort of things that I can measure. And so I don't think it's really true in a way that people here, even in this conference or in agency or gaming development, haven't thought about emotion, but they'd like to be able to understand it in a physiological way. So for example, you know that too, right? I mean, many people here, Mel Slater, Anthony Steed, you know, and the people from UNC Chapel Hill have kind of pioneered measuring physiological response. And that is emotion, right? I mean, that's a way of tapping into emotion. What I would say about emotion that I think is so exciting that colleagues are doing, for example, one of my colleagues that just recently moved to Army Research Lab, Michael Gois, and his previous supervisor, Janine Stefanucci at University of Utah, is that they're asking the question, like I was saying before, is if we have a different emotional state, like if we're afraid, which is a very relevant state for gaming, right? If you're making people afraid or if you're giving them an experience of relaxation, for example, which is again, another very relevant thing for virtual reality. Are you truly changing the way they see the world? And I think that's a really relevant question. It's a really hard question to go after, because in all my work with experimental psychology, I have to say that I've tried to steer away from what I would say is the really cognitive level. And there's reason for that, because it's really hard to measure the cognitive level and to measure and to model, I would say, the inputs from cognition to sensory perception. But it's naive, I think, as an experimental psychologist, neuroscientist, to think that it's not playing a role. And so the work from Janine, for example, that is so exciting is she's done work where she's looked at just distance perception, or in this particular case, height perception. So she's had people standing at the top of a cliff, right? Something we know from the VR community as well. And what she's done is she's tried to understand how their arousal, their state of fear, influences the distances, the heights that they report. And she's made some arguments and Mike Goyce has as well made some arguments about two types of fear because, you know, we have emotion wise, we have at least two sort of categories of fear. One is a trait fear, which is basically like some people are terrified of heights. For example, their whole life they have been, they'll never not be. And you have the state trait, which is like at this very moment, I'm terrified of heights, but I don't have a general fear of heights. And so they've looked at those two factors and tried to understand how that influences height perception. and I think made relatively strong case that your emotions do change the way you see the space. Now that's highly debated and I think there needs to be a lot more research on it, but I think if you come back to what I said before about physiology, well why shouldn't it change? the way you see the space, and also with regard to attention. Because for example, if you're really terrified, and this is what I love about Mike's work, and I hope it's also stuff that's still coming out, but I think, for example, if you're someone who has a trait fear, you're terrified of heights in general, and you're at that moment afraid, it's not too unlikely that you're gonna look at different places than someone else like me who I'm a rock climber and you know it doesn't bother me at all so I might even just take in different visual information and so I do think that the gamers the VR developers really and I think they are but they will need to more consider how this part of our experience, this emotional part of our experience, changes the way people experience the gameplay. And that, I mean, I think it sits in this individual difference thing, right? Because there are tons of people that are just no fear whatsoever or, you know, and it's not just at the sensory level. So we all have lots of differences and emotions is one where I think we're gonna see a lot of need for more research there.

[00:15:03.742] Kent Bye: Yeah, and just in talking to different people who are at IEEE VR, there's a number of different factors that I see that are really stimulating emotional engagement, whether it's the architecture of the space, the light and the color and the textures of a space, I think can have an influence on that as well. Any music can bring back emotional engagement and story, narrative elements, you know. These are all things that are kind of holistically applying to other dimensions. But I think in terms of emotional engagement, you have those dimensions, but you also have like dimensions of social presence. And so being able to interact with different people, then there's an emotional component that happens there as well. So the thing that comes to mind is I was talking to David Engelman. He's a neuroscientist. And I've been thinking about these concepts of embodied cognition and the role of both the body and our emotions and our perception. I was asking him, from your perspective, what do you think about embodied cognition, and how do you think about it? And he's like, well, I'll give you a metaphor. What he said was that you have an entire city, and that's the brain, and that the body is like a suburb. And I was just like, wow, okay. I mean, I didn't get into a deep philosophical discussion with him about that, but for me, I almost feel like it might be flipped. There's so many unconscious processes that are happening, that are coming through our body and our perceptual system. they're going through the brain, but I feel like our body is sort of like a big antenna, as well as our emotions are helping kind of filter our experience. And so, to me, it feels like there's almost like this debate that's happening philosophically within the VR community, which is, if you look at Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, just talking about this principles of embodied cognition that are challenging this enlightenment concept of the mind, with Descartes wanting to say that there's a separation between the mind-body dualism. So I kind of feel like with VR, we're kind of bringing back the, you know, if there was a split between the science and the spirit in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that we're kind of like trying to merge this science and spirit, the mind and the body, and the objective and the subjective in a certain way. So I don't know if you have any thoughts about that.

[00:17:04.148] Betty Mohler: Well, I think this is all really exciting. I mean, what's being done in Europe, at least in the philosophical community, and how they're approaching VR is really exciting. Like, for example, we have very famous Thomas Metzinger in Frankfurt, I'm not sure. But he's amazing, and he wrote this code of conduct. for VR, but it's grounded on a lot of research that he's done with Mel Slater looking at philosophical aspects that VR brings up, and brings up in a very tangible way, right? So for us to ask, what is it to have a body, right? Because now all of a sudden with VR, we can have these experiences that have been discussed in the philosophical literature or experienced only by a set few that have had neurological problems like this out-of-body experience. And so I think, I mean, for me at least in the last few years one of the most, I told you earlier a little bit about it, but one of the most exciting talks I've seen was by Dave Chalmers who's a NYU professor in philosophy and he's really now can make very tangible to the wide public, because a lot of people have experienced VR, some of these things that you're talking about with regards to Descartes and what is real? What is it? Could this all be a dream? Could it all be fake? I mean, you know, the popular movie industry has also made that clear, but now you can experience it yourself and you can begin to ask some of these questions, right? So I find it extremely exciting what the philosophy, specifically the philosophy of neuroscience community, is doing. I work very closely with Hongyu Wang. He's a professor who's leading a group at the University of Tübingen on philosophy of neuroscience. And those kind of scientists are amazing because what they're doing is they're reading the research from experimental psychology, they're reading the neuroscience literature, and they're helping to form greater theories for scientists like myself, who I'm often caught in the narrow study of the bodily experience, the physical body experience, and they can help us to sort of guide our research to ask greater questions. And so I've been working with Hongyu Wang for eight years now, I would say, and he's helped me to design new experiments that can shed light on what does it mean to have a body and what exactly is the influence of my visual body on my experience.

[00:19:08.021] Kent Bye: Yeah. And to me, I think the thing that I'm seeing is that, you know, these are, you know, postmodern concepts that have been, I think, discussed in the philosophical communities, you know, for a long, long time, you know, and from Liggenstein and Kant. And if you go to Freud and Jung, even, you know, talking about the levels of the unconscious, and there's a whole sort of philosophical lineage that I really look to Rick Tarnas's Passion of the Western Mind, where he really kind of traces the evolution of the Western mind and Western thinking. And that, you know, I think the thing that's different is that with virtual reality, you're able to have a direct experience of some of these concepts. And that, you know, I've done some interviews with a German literature scholar who was talking about that there's two words for experience in German. There's Erlebnis, which is like the direct sensory experience. And then there's Erfahrung, which is a little bit like your learned experience or skills that you've learned over time, which could either be from your own direct experience, or they could also be from things that people told you. So there's this didactic process of learning where, you know, people are giving you a lecture and they're telling you what's real and that's one way of learning and that's still valid. Some people can learn like that really well. But I think what I see is this trend is like rather than having a worldview that's based upon through, you know, because the world's so vast, there's a lot of people have told you things about the world. Now we're able to have like a direct, synthetic experience of these different concepts. And then with that, it's in our body in a new way. And I think that what I'm seeing in just in the field of VR is just people more talking about these different, you know, theories of mind and their basic philosophical assumptions, but more or less that VR is giving us a level of embodiment that's allowing us to have these direct experiences.

[00:20:48.892] Betty Mohler: Yeah, I find it so exciting, really. I mean, it's not only exciting as a research tool, but also I'm really curious what's coming next, right? So I told you that I get a lot of funding with my colleagues in philosophy. And for example, right now, we're studying a lot about self perception. So what does it mean? Who am I? Where am I, for example? and reflecting and thinking about that project that we have funding from Volkswagen to study, you know, a lot of it is about the sensory experience, like I said, like sort of where's the origin of myself? When I experience visual motion, for example, or motion in other sensory parts, like for example, my vestibular system or my proprioception, where's the origin of that? What's the frame of reference? What am I, right? What's the essence of me? But I, when thinking about that grant and what you were just saying is, You know, I'm excited to see each year at VR and in virtual reality technology, what other kinds of experiences we might have, right? So what would it mean for you and me, for example, to have a shared self? And, you know, that's possible, right? I don't know what it'll look like. What would it mean for you and me to experience our life together always from the same perspective? But, you know, if you envision what we're looking down the line of what VR could be, that's a possibility, right? You and I could go through a day and experience the day from the same bodily, say, experience, right? If it all goes the way we think. And that's just one example, you know, there's other things about, I know you talked with others who are interested in all, and we also are interested in all and vastness, and there's some elements there of what does it mean to have a collective experience, right? What does it mean to sort of feel that you're bigger than your own self, right? And so I'm just super excited about And it'll take a collective effort because it's a design process to make these experiences. But it also, you need to fundamentally have a sense of what it means to have a body. what it means to have these kind of experiences and the emotional side. I want to tell you too, I mean, this is unrelated to the philosophical side, but I find VR is getting more and more emotional. Like for example, I don't know if you've experienced the Google earth VR and I'm doing, I'm trying to use that in my research at the moment. And I find it extremely emotional to go to places that you've been before. and to just have control over the lighting and the space. I mean, it's just beautiful. And I mean, it's well done, but it's really going to be exciting because that's just Earth, you know? What about the next experiences we can have?

[00:23:15.350] Kent Bye: Yeah, I've had some pretty profound experiences in Google Earth VR, both with myself, but also with friends. I got early access to Google Earth about a week before it was released, and so I had a chance to both go through it for myself, but I invited some friends over to go with it together. And the thing that I noticed is that some of my friends were giving us a guided tour to different parts of the world that I've never been. you know, those stories. And so I almost feel like, you know, I went through this own process of Google Earth VR, where to go back to places that I really were connected to. And there was like, the way that I've been describing it is like mapping the emotional architecture of my life. You know, there's like a layer of meaning that I have and that I was never able to actually kind of visualize it and understand it until I was able to go back to each of these individual places and look at my hometown from kind of a bird's eye view.

[00:24:03.424] Betty Mohler: not just sharing with your friends, but self-reflection. I mean, the first time I was in Google Earth in VR was with Oculus Rift. And it is exactly like you said. It's storytelling. It's sharing. But I think it comes back to your experience. It's about revisiting experiences where you had an emotional experience. And so I'm just so excited to see what people do with this technology. And I'm so grateful to Google and Microsoft and all these companies that are making these experiences, which are beautifully crafted beautifully designed so that anyone can experience them because I think These are really powerful experiences to tell somebody you know to share with a friend or a parent that's never been to your home Hey, that's where I live. That's who I am. That's that's a part of me. So I think it's wonderful. So

[00:24:49.695] Kent Bye: Yeah, in talking to Denise Queneau about her research and using Google Earth VR to invoke these feelings of awe, I had a personal experience of that, of almost like this synthetic created overview effect of being able to see the vastness of the Earth. And how, you know, I sort of theoretically thought, you know, okay, we all live on this planet, you know, we're all sort of connected to each other, you know, in a certain way. But actually having that direct experience, having that thought that we all live on the earth and we all share this common ground, like literally the common ground is the earth that we live on. And that to me was an experience that, you know, really changed me. It felt like it was in my body in a new way. But you were mentioning earlier about awe and your research into awe and the vastness. So what specifically are you really trying to figure out about the emotion of awe?

[00:25:39.377] Betty Mohler: Well, I have to say, like I told you earlier, that I try to avoid cognition very often because I'm not sure how much I can control of it. But I mean, there's things about vastness and awe that are very relevant to the body and how you experience. that space. So what we're trying to go after, and we've published one thing on that with Bobby Klatsky and Bill Thompson and Ginny and Stefanucci from University of Utah, which is, you know, I wonder if you also had that experience when you were in Google earth VR is there's a sense of relative dimensions of your body and the physical space you're around. And I, and I think everybody does experience something about this when you, for example, are in Google earth VR and you zoom out, you know, you, they have these functionalities where you can, kind of take that space station view or even just a zoomed out view of Earth. And what I'd like to study and what we are studying is kind of asking the question, well, if you're in a big space, like a vast space, not just a big space, but a vast space, you know, immeasurable. You just can't tell how far things are. You just have no, you have no action capabilities. You have no way of knowing just how far that is. And a good example of that might be the Grand Canyon, but thanks to Google Earth VR, we can find tons of examples like that. And you don't even have to physically go there. You can look at it and say, wow, that's immeasurable. That's large. That's impressive. That's, it's going towards, oh, I'm amazed by it, right? How does that affect the way we experience our body? And I love that question because, It sits in two spaces. It sits in the sensory side, what I said before, which is that, you know, there's no reason why just by being at the edge of the Grand Canyon, you should think your body's smaller. But there's cognitive factors such as your emotions, such as your attention maybe to your body. such as the metaphor for which you describe yourself with relation to the world that might make you really forget about your body or even have a diminished sense of self. And so we're trying through lots of different experimental methods to find measures for that. So to find out how big do I think my body is, where do I think I am in space, when confronted or experiencing some of these really impressively large spaces, or vice versa, really closed-in spaces, like if you're in the middle of a forest, might you have a different experience of your body? So it's early days in that research, but we published something at the Symposium on Applied Perception in that direction, and that's some of the work that I have partnerships with philosophers.

[00:27:58.200] Kent Bye: Awesome. So what do you want to experience in VR?

[00:28:02.062] Betty Mohler: That's a very good question. I want you to ask me this every year that we talk because it's always shifting. I mean, what do I want to experience in VR? I really want to be able to be wherever I want to be at any given time. You know, so I really love, there's this beaming session that Mel organized this year at IEEE VR, which is just lovely. And I want to be able to see my parents when I want to in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I want to see a concert, you know, and really be in that concert if I can. I want to be able to experience things that happened in the past that were amazing. And when I say that I don't mean like I want to watch a movie. I want the new VR to be able to relive a moment or to live in a moment in a unique new way in a body.

[00:28:48.300] Kent Bye: One thing that I would push back philosophically that I've been thinking about a lot is that trying to go back and recreate a moment, whether or not that's possible. I know that if you look at people talking about the photography, photography is trying to capture a moment, and then there's this question of if you try to capture that moment, then are you really present for that moment? once you take that picture, then what does that, how does that change your memory of that moment? Does your memory then become sort of that 2D version of that? And so being and living and being completely present in the ever-flowing, like changing dimensions of time, then can you ever go back and really recreate it or see it? Or what is it about that nostalgia that, you know, you would want to actually get at, I guess?

[00:29:31.305] Betty Mohler: Well, I don't know. I mean, there's so many things about that. So first of all, we have people in our lives that we love. And there's not that many people. We all have friends and everything. But I'd love to be able to capture moments with people that I love that I know in 20 years won't be here anymore and capture an essence of them so that I can enjoy them more than a photograph allows me to enjoy them and remember how I felt in their presence. So that's one thing. But I think another thing is about what we talked about earlier, it's just about self-reflection. You know, we're always constantly learning more about ourselves. And I think there's a place for VR, definitely in my life, because I'm constantly self-reflecting on where I've been and where I want to go based on where I've been, that I think would be really useful to revisit times when I've been in classes, right? So times when I've had profound learning experiences, either if it's at a VR conference because I heard an amazing speaker or with a mentor who just told me something that you know, 10 years down the line, if I heard it again, I'd probably hear a very different thing, you know, I might be ready to experience something new from that discussion. And so I'm not saying I think we have to live in the moment and VR has its, you know, for me, at least, I don't want to replace the real world with VR. But I think there's, there's something about being able to look back and you know, I want the future. So I want two things in the future of VR. One is all this is just being able to capture the essence of a person and capturing, you know, replacing videos with a surround experience that I can just feel like I'm there. But another is that I've been talking about this a lot lately, but it's very different is that I don't want the future to be desktop work. I sit in an office, it's nice, I have a great view of the mountains in Tübingen, Germany. I like it, but for my child I would really love it if she doesn't have to sit at a desk and she can really do skilled technical work even, I don't care, programming if she becomes a programmer, but that she can do it in such a way that's more active, more creative, more collaborative. So I also see that VR isn't just about these fun experiences or about media or entertainment, but I want it to be changing the way we do work.

[00:31:45.612] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:31:54.375] Betty Mohler: Hmm, the ultimate potential. Well, I think it is really, I've said that before, I think virtual reality in combination with, you know, in contrast to augmented reality. So I think a lot of people kind of use them interchangeably, but virtual reality in combination with virtual avatars. So really being able to represent people in VR, I think it's a humongous step change in media. And I really think it has a chance to make going to even an IMAX cinema seem really boring, right? So, you know, the creative and the choice of the viewer in a VR with a self avatar, I think if the, you know, Hollywood gets behind it, if you get animation studios behind it, that it could just be making all this stuff, like making an IMAX, like seem like reading a book, right? So, and I think it has humongous potential. But I also, I mean, I loved Tobias Haller's keynote talk this year at IEEE VR because he said, like, we should be thinking about what to use this for for good. You know, what do we want to use it for? And I also think it has tremendous potential to help people that need help, whether it's like the clinical partners that I'm working with. I'm hopeful, and I think it requires a lot of work, but I think I love Skip Rezo's work, working with post-traumatic stress disorder. And I think we need to be driving this research, not just for entertainment, like I just said, like replacing the cinema, but also for people that could really benefit from this technology. And this year at IEEE VR, I don't know about you, but I've just heard about so many different projects. Anthony Steed mentioned that he works with dementia patients. I mean, I could name dozens of projects that are just like, wow, that's cool. That's a really great idea for VR. And it's going to take a lot of work for it to be really useful in a lot of science to understand how to make it best useful. But I want it to be able to help in all areas of life.

[00:33:50.299] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. You're welcome. So that was Betty Moeller. She's at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics. So I have a number of different takeaways from this interview is that first of all, I think it's a very compelling use case of using virtual reality to do these 3D scans of yourself and then to be able to dial up and down your weight to start to figure out what you think your ideal weight should be. There seems to be some fruitful research of applying virtual reality to people who are suffering from different various eating disorders and that they're able to start to get to these different questions of what's actually happening with these different misperceptions about your own body. And what would you like to have your body look like? Do we really see our bodies as they are? Or do we all have some level of distortions about our body? And are our perceptions of our body changed by whatever emotions we're going through? Some of the research that Betty was mentioning from Michael Gois and Jeanine Stefanucci suggests that there could be a connection between different emotional states and how you're perceiving the space around you. Betty was saying that they had isolated that there were two different types of states of fear. One was that you have a chronic fear of heights, or you may just be in a context where you're afraid of the heights in that situation. And so they're able to look at these different various arousals and states of fear, but see that there could actually be a connection between what's happening with your emotions and what is happening with your ability to construct reality. Your perception could be changed depending on what emotional state that you're in. And I think that actually has a lot of implications within virtual reality experiences to start to think about this sense of emotional presence and how it impacts someone's perception, as well as their direct experience of whatever virtual application that you're creating. The other thing that I find really interesting is this collaboration that Betty's been doing with a philosopher of neuroscience, Dr. Hong-Yu Wong, where they're able to use virtual reality to ask these deeper questions about, what does it mean to have a body? What is the visual influence of a body on my experience? And when you look at an experience like Life of Us from within, you start to embody these different characters. And I had a direct experience of having my behavior changed by not only my physical embodiment of these characters, but also being able to speak and have my voice modulated. And that was changing my sense of myself as well. But collaborating with these different philosophers, she's been able to have them have a higher level view of some of the deeper philosophical questions that could start to be answered by designing specific virtual reality experiments. Another philosopher that Betty mentioned was David Chalmers of NYU, who's been also looking at the philosophy of virtual reality and saying things like, you know, VR is actually just as real as real reality. And going back to these deeper questions that Descartes was talking about, like, what's to say that all of our reality isn't constructed or somebody who's feeding these different visual inputs into your sensory systems then gets to these deeper questions of what is reality? Some of the other ideas that I took away from this interview is this concept of being able to have multiple people embody the same virtual body. What does it mean to have a shared social experience when there's multiple people that are behind an avatar? What would it mean to have this kind of virtual collective shared experience in that way of starting to blend your boundaries of your identity into other people and having these kind of collective entities that are able to maybe have this form of collective agency that starts to emerge? Would be almost like a voting system where it may be able to aggregate and discern the agency of individuals And then it would only actually take action if there would be a collective decision around that And finally, just this idea that you could start to be in multiple virtual locations at the same time. Imagine looking at a web browser and you have like 10 tabs that are open up at the same time. And maybe you in one tab, you're listening to something that's happening, but you're actually in a physical reality that's in a different existence. And so what does it mean to start to be living in multiple virtual spaces at the same time? are there things where if you turn around you're in a different reality and it's kind of blended together and kind of seamed together where you're stitching together these virtual experiences that are happening at the same time and maybe you're able to kind of remix the different haptics from one experience the sound from another experience and live in the visuals of a completely different experience So just as people are maybe on the subway listening to an iPod, podcast, or music, they're in some ways creating an alternative virtual world and experience that they're mediating their sensory experience. Within virtual reality, we're going to be able to do that, where we're potentially mashing up different inputs from different virtual worlds. And what does it mean to start to be able to dial that up to different degrees? That's something that I haven't seen yet, but that's kind of what Betty is suggesting, where you're able to have this sense of virtual presence within multiple locations at the same time, where it could actually start to be in multiple places at the same time and kind of virtually clone yourself. And if you're in social situations, then what does that mean when you're kind of checked out and you're not actually there? And what will it mean to be able to capture an experience that you went through? Maybe it's completely in virtual reality, but you'll potentially be able to come back to it later. Experiments that Mel Slater has done on time travel, of creating this time travel illusion of recording yourself and going back and looking at it. But what are the implications of self-reflection, of being able to witness yourself with this more objective perspective? Maybe you'll get some completely new insights that the more and more you visit a specific situation in your life It'll be like unpeeling the layers of the onion you get deeper deeper into these core essential truths of who you are and why you're here So although I think it was a little bit skeptical of this idea of reliving moments in a new way, I think there's a lot of validity to being able to capture people that we love or capture the essence of someone and to be able to revisit the qualities that we love in them, but also revisit experiences that could be completely transformative or to keep coming back to be able to generate more and more insight about ourselves. So that's all that I have for today. Just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word. Tell your friends. If you've got somebody who wants to do some crazy ideas about playing with the extent of embodiment within VR, please send it to that person. I want to be able to have this experience where I'm able to embody a character with many different people. I just think it would be interesting to see what kind of things that does to my sense of myself. And, you know, if you want to support the podcast, then you can become a donor to my Patreon and help support this initiative of going out and doing all these interviews. I attended over a dozen conferences this year and hundreds of interviews so far. And if you're enjoying these insights, then contribute to the Patreon just to help me continue doing this Voices of VR podcast. So you can donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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