The Evidence Base

Informing Policy in Health, Economics & Well-Being
A collaboration with
USC Dornsife Center for economic and social research

Innovating with Virtual and Augmented Reality for Research and Policy

SIGGRAPH (short for “Special Interest Group on Computer GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques”) is the world’s largest, most influential annual event in computer graphics and interactive techniques. A major theme of the conference this year was virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). While VR uses computer technology to create an experience of an entirely new environment, AR uses similar technologies to supplement one’s experience of their own environment in some way. VR and AR have been around for over a decade, but it wasn’t until recent years that advances in computing power have made applications of these technologies a reality.

VR and AR applications could have clear relevance for policy in a range of areas. They could be harnessed to add value to existing interventions to improve individuals’ decision-making in areas such as health, financial decision-making, education and others.

Indeed, there are many ways in which AR and VR could be used to support consumers to make better choices. For instance, in the areas of nutrition and health, AR could be incorporated into cell phone technology to track a customer’s location and deliver “just in time” information about which healthy choices are available on store shelves to ‘nudge’ consumers towards purchasing healthier items.

This technology is promising in education as well. For example, VR could be incorporated into instruction in areas where conventional educational has seen mixed results, such as financial literacy. CESR researchers, among others, have already shown the benefit of technology in this area; a study on different delivery channels for a financial education program found that videos delivered online work better than paper brochures at explaining complex financial concepts such as risk diversification. The researchers also explored the effect of allowing individuals to interact with a visual tool, and found that this kind of experience also improved understanding. The interactive tool used in the above study allowed people to choose different hypothetical investment opportunities and visualize the risk associated with their hypothetical portfolio. Since both videos and interactive tools were effective, this suggests that a VR experience that combines story-telling in an immersive environment with the ability to interact with this environment would be even more effective.

At SIGGRAPH, a number of virtual exhibits and talks focused on the use of VR for education – virtual exhibits in VR Village allowed participants to experience being inside the human body, an archeological site, and a coral reef, while the keynote delivered by NASA scientist Z. Nagin Cox focused on the use of VR to train NASA engineers.

VR could be used to aid research itself. For example, in experimental research, VR could replace the use of natural settings like grocery stores, schools or office buildings. There are limitations to carrying out research in real life settings; most notably, it can be costly and time consuming to secure and prepare such spaces for experimental research. With VR, researchers could create a lab that acts for all intents and purposes as a new environment, and investigate how people make decisions in this space. For instance, research looking at how consumers’ respond to nutritional labels in restaurants could use VR to create the restaurant setting and replicate the experience of dining-out. VR could also be useful in research on different aspects of intra-household dynamics. Researchers often have a hard time capturing data in the home. Developing a VR “home-like” environment and observing social interactions or decision-making in the home could be a possible direction for incorporating VR to research studies in economics, psychology and other fields.

While overall very promising, incorporating AR and VR into future research has some limitations. First, the cost of the technology should decrease before it can become mainstream. It is currently more expensive to conduct AR/VR research than traditional ways of doing research, but this will soon change as AR/VR costs decrease. Computing power should also increase before we can seamlessly use this technology to gather data in real-time.  For instance, personal computers cannot currently be used to create a VR requirement without additional VR equipment. Moreover, before AR/VR can be used in policy or practice, ethical considerations such as privacy issues should be discussed. Still, the opportunities VR and AR present for both policy and research are exciting and warrant continued exploration.