What do we do?
We are microsociologists. In other words, we study how humans interact in VR. We are interested in the specific interactive modalities that are made possible in existing VR-spaces, such as games and social spaces (e.g. VRChat, Rec Room, etc.). Our interests are not restricted to computer games – we are interested in all kinds of VR initiatives that facilitate any kind of observable social interaction. This can also include spaces where humans interact with non-human avatars. The analysis of this kind of human-computer interaction would provide useful insights for the development of conversational simulation software. While we are not developers ourselves, we welcome any and all productive exchanges.
What are we interested in, and why?
VR is an intriguing phenomenon for a multitude of reasons. Microsociologists study interaction; interaction in virtual reality is notably different from interaction in physical space. Firstly, the interactional resources that users have available in VR are drastically different (e.g. many controllers do not feature fully articulated hands, limiting the range of possible natural gestures). Secondly, VR goes beyond traditional forms of mediated communication (such as phones, online chatrooms and teleconferencing), creating a space where the user may be maximally immersed to the point of ‘tuning out’ from physical reality. This has consequences for the user’s sense of copresence and involvement.
How is this sociology? Aren’t these concerns more in line with cognitive psychology?
Microsociologists and cognitive psychologists often study similar phenomena. However, the specific way they approach these phenomena is radically different. While both psychologists and sociologists can be interested in social interaction, there are almost irreconcilable methodological and conceptual differences: psychologists would, in general, be interested in the way this interaction may affect (and be affected by) internal cognitive processes (such as the speed of mental processing). Microsociologists, on the other hand, would rather be interested in the things that occur and exist between the interacting humans: the things that are mutually visible and relevant to the interactants themselves. For example, gaze direction could be a relevant parameter for both disciplines. For psychologists, gaze direction could be made relevant to the way individual consciousnesses accomplish coordinated actions. For sociologists, gaze would be – first and foremost – a public phenomenon that was generated and made relevant cooperatively. Shifts in gaze could be, for example, relevant entry- and exit points for specific interactional sequences (such as greetings that require eye contact) and participants may carefully monitor the reciprocal distribution of gaze direction throughout the encounter.
What’s so special about our research approach?
We use cutting-edge multimodal video-analysis – a methodological framework that is virtually unknown in Russia. The framework is situated at the intersection of linguistics, anthropology and sociology. The core idea is a detailed analysis of naturalistic video data that seeks to unveil the interactional elements that are relevant to the in situ interactants. This type of research is commonly grouped with ‘qualitative’ research methods: the methodology aims to detect and analyze a large amount of minute details from a relatively small corpus of data (in our case, videorecordings of VR-based interaction). The attention to details allows us to understand the unique mutually-sustained structure of a particular interaction.
Multimodal analysis aims to analyze how interaction actually unfolds. This makes it notably different from classical qualitative research methods such as post-hoc interviews and focus groups. As such, it does not rely on the interactants’ ability to accurately recollect the encounters, and avoids looking only at those phenomena that are most memorable to the participants themselves. We use videodata as our primary source of data, which allows us to give a detailed account of the unique interactional ecology of a particular virtual (or mixed) reality space. You can find more details about our methodology here.
Does this research generate any practical, actionable results?
We think so. Social interaction permeates every aspect of our lives. While we are capable of quite complex actions, this very fact often precludes us from having generating an explicit account of what was done – and how. We feel that it is important to seek insight about the things we take to be mundane, precisely because they are so pervasive and seemingly beyond empirical analysis. The insight thereby generated can have impact on the way products are designed, interfaces programmed and interactions projected. For example, Lucy Suchman, in her now classical investigation of how people use complex office printers, showed the difficulties of anticipating user action when dealing with human-computer interaction. Her insights helped device interfaces become more user-friendly.
This type of insight is especially needed for virtual reality, since this space is still devoid of clear guidelines for effective human-focused UX design. By investigating how users interact in VR, we hope to contribute to best practices regarding the construction of virtual interactional spaces.
Are you open to collaborations?
To researchers: We are very enthusiastic about any kind of collaborative endeavor. If you are interested in VR and have any suggestions for a productive exchange (including multidisciplinary projects), do not hesitate to contact us. We are currently conducting a joint research project with the Cognitive Research Lab of RANEPA concerning the problem of replication of psychological experiments. We also welcome the exchange of data, insight and readings with fellow researchers. Should you wish to discuss our methodology or conceptual framework, we are more than willing to organize a discussion in physical or virtual space.
To developers: virtual reality is an unpredictable, novel space. It differs quite drastically from our usual spaces for interaction and communication. We investigate how people interact in VR. Consequently, we could research how people interact in a specific virtual space, and suggest ways to improve user experience.