What does it feel like to own, to control, and to be inside a body and how you would feel if you embodied a different body? 

Virtual reality technology enables its users to experience themselves and their environment in a different way, depending on the experience. At the University of Barcelona and in particular at the Event Lab (Experimental Virtual Environments for Neuroscience and Technology), the team led by VR pioneer Mel Slater, explores the sense of embodiment in virtual environments through a series of experiments. We had the opportunity to talk to one of the team’s researchers, Domna Banakou.

“What fascinates me is the fact that the human mind is so mailable… I’m interested in the concept of Body Ownership Illusion, not only how it is used but also what the behavioral consequences of a person integrating another body that is completely different from their own, “Banakou explains.

For the past three years, the Greek scientist has been conducting postdoctoral research at the Event Lab, working on project MoTIVE (Moments in Time in Immersive Virtual Environments), which explores how virtual reality can be used to recreate a historical event, so that participants can have the illusion of being there (Place Illusion) and accept that the events taking place within the virtual world, as real. For this project, the researchers decided to recreate a famous Dire Straits concert where participants would be able to embody someone from the audience or even the band!

“When you participate in these experiments you know that it is not your body that you see with your VR headset, but the mind needs to give an explanation, because what we see and what we feel it interprets it as one. These experiments change the way you perceive yourself and your environment. ”

Other researchers at the Event Lab, conducted experiments involving men guilty of domestic violence who were unable to recognize the expression of fear on their victim’s face. The main objective of the study was to investigate some of the mechanisms underlying this type of violent behavior. In the experiment, the offenders enter the victim’s place in a virtual reality environment. The experiment’s results showed that the offenders were more sensitized.

BEinstein Project: Can virtual reality make us smarter?

“The question in this project was whether virtual reality can affect our cognitive abilities. In this experiment, we created two groups: in the first, the students embodied a body similar to their own, meaning, young. In the second group, the students “entered” Einstein’s body. Both groups had to test and answer questions before and after the experiment. The answers allowed us to measure participants’ intelligence and self-esteem. What we saw is that the students who were in the body of the famous scientist and who had improved their test scores, were the ones with lower self-esteem. One explanation is that smart people who have high self-esteem don’t think they have to spend a lot of time on a task that seems easy or boring to them. Those who have low self-esteem however, when they “get into another body”, the way they see themselves, changes and are motivated to improve their performance and their self-esteem. ”

A few words about Domna Banakou

Domna Banakou was born and raised in Athens and finished high school in Preveza where she had moved with her family. In the final year of her undergraduate studies at the Department of Informatics at the Ionian University, she became interested in virtual reality and the research that her current professor, Mel Slater, was doing at the time. She decided to apply for a Master’s degree in Computer Graphics abroad and was accepted to University College London (UCL), where Slater was teaching. Domna decides to accept her professor’s proposal and pursue her doctoral research at the Event Lab at the University of Barcelona.