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New Stanford Study Considers Impact of Metaverse Advancement

How will virtual worlds influence people and their relationships?

Photo by Hammer & Tusk / Unsplash

A new study by researchers from the universities of Stanford and Connecticut has sought to evaluate the impact of evolving metaverse technologies on players.

Published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, the 27-page document considers many different questions, such as how certain avatars and virtual environments affect our “sense of self- and spatial presence, enjoyment, and realism.”

Entitled “People, places, and time: A large-scale, longitudinal study of transformed avatars and environmental context in group interaction in the metaverse,” the work was undertaken by several departments of Stanford, with support from the University of Connecticut’s Department of Communication.

Self-Avatars and Open Spaces

The study group comprised 272 students who were asked to don Oculus Quest 2 VR headsets for 30 minutes once weekly over an eight-week period. The participants met in different virtual environments – some 192 in total – over this time frame, giving the researchers thousands of minutes’ worth of interactions to review.

Among its many interesting findings, the report noted that when represented by avatars that resembled themselves, people “displayed more synchronous nonverbal behaviors, or were more ‘in sync’ with others, and reported the image quality of the environment and people as more realistic.” Moreover, when players’ avatars wore the same uniform, they experienced more enjoyment.

When exploring more spacious virtual environments, meanwhile, users reported enjoying “greater restoration, group cohesion, pleasure, arousal, presence, enjoyment, and realism, than in constrained environments.” Moreover, outdoor environments with elements of nature led to a greater sense of wellbeing than indoor spaces.

One of the study’s authors, Jeremy Bailenson, a professor at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, called the discovery that expansive outdoor areas had a similarly positive psychological impact as actually being outdoors “one of the more compelling findings from our study.”

It’s certainly a natural retort to an oft-made argument – that spending time in the metaverse will have a deleterious impact on our mental health. Perhaps the impact, positive or negative, depends on the type of metaverse setting the person is exploring. In the case of open, panoramic spaces, it may actually help to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, and increase focus – benefits that have been demonstrated in previous studies.

Regarding the finding that users preferred self-avatars to generic ones, Bailenson explained, “When you’re getting serious in the metaverse, you want to look like you.”

Although the metaverse is often touted for its professional application – virtual meeting rooms and the like – the Stanford and Connecticut researchers suggested that “meeting with group members and engaging in a discussion in an outdoor environment — in between boulders, near ponds, or surrounded by a forest — may have provided an experience that is not common or easily accessible, leading to novelty, and in turn, greater enjoyment.”

Perhaps major corporations eyeing the metaverse should host future AGMs on a virtual Bahamas beach, in that case.