Psychology researcher Jeremy Bailenson has someone who will convince you to save energy. That someone is the virtual you.

Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson is experimenting with virtual reality to change entrenched behaviors. He thinks there’s an application for his research in energy conservation and efficiency.

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Dr. Jeremy Bailenson describes a virtual reality experience to a group of energy efficiency professionals (EP photo)

Professor Bailenson is the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. He specializes in how human interactions in virtual environments can facilitate behavior change. He’s also a Senior Fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He recently received a Department of Energy grant to explore how new technology can affect energy consumption behavior.

Dr. Bailenson spoke at the Efficiency Exchange conference last week about his research in “immersive virtual reality” and how it could be used to affect people’s behavior when it comes to saving energy.

Virtual reality is conceptually simple and technically demanding. It involves tracking a person’s movements, redrawing the scene around them accordingly, and giving sensory feedback to the person. Video games have been doing this for years, with increasing degrees of realism.

When the effect becomes real enough, the experience is so immersive that the person can forget it’s not real — a state known as “presence.” Today’s computer processing power is making the effect very real, albeit expensive.

Dr. Bailenson demonstrated the 3D goggles he uses in his lab. They cost $40,000 each and run on a small bank of servers — not something you or I will have in our living rooms any time soon.

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Researcher adjusts virtual reality goggles. (EP photo)

After his presentation I got to take the goggles for a walk along a narrow balance beam high above a warehouse floor. The goggles do make the experience quite intensely realistic, even though the scene is still obviously computer-drawn.  When asked to walk off the edge into the abyss, I had a hard time taking that step. My experience in that virtual space supplanted my awareness of the carpeted meeting room and the real people around me.

The only thing missing was my avatar — the ability to see myself. The experiments in Bailenson’s lab play on a similar experience, but they add the subject’s image to the scene. The lab staff can create a working 3D avatar of a subject in a few minutes from two digital photographs of their head.

Since the first humans looked at their reflections in a pool of water, we’ve been able to see ourselves doing things. At first, I imagine, we saw ourselves falling into the water.

With the advent of film we gained the ability to see asynchronous versions of ourselves. Now, with virtual reality, we can see ourselves doing imaginary things — similar to seeing a holographic Tupac perform dance moves he never did.

“For the first time in history we have something drastically different” from video, Bailenson explains. “Imagine that you walk up to a mirror and see a version of yourself.” This person not only looks just like you, it does everything you do. “Then I hit a button and suddenly this version of yourself starts doing things that not only are you not doing now, but you’ve never done in your life, and maybe never could do. You see yourself in the third person doing something you’ve never done. This is a really big idea.”


THE POTENTIAL FOR ENERGY conservation comes from linking that big idea with another idea that advertisers latched onto decades ago: social learning theory. It says that if you see behavior modeled, the probability that you’ll follow that advice increases if the person modeling the behavior is similar to you.

“Who’s more similar to you than you?” Bailenson asks. “We can show you a public service announcement where you are the endorser.”

Despite years of public service advertising, one of the hardest behaviors to change is health behavior. Stanford’s lab has been used for some health behavior modeling experiments, starting in 2005 with an experiment to use virtual reality to get subjects to exercise more.

As a participant exercised in the lab with the 3D goggles on, his avatar in the mirror got slimmer. When he stopped, his avatar regained the weight. Compared to subjects who just watched a video of themselves exercising, or those for whom the avatar was not themselves, the virtual reality mirror image created the largest behavior change: Afterward, subjects exercised 45 minutes more per day compared to the control group.

Energy conservation, Bailenson says, is more closely related to recent experiments in empathy. Dr. Grace Ahn of the University of Georgia showed that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes changes attitudes about handicaps. A super-hero helping study published earlier this year also is relevant. “People who are energy efficient are heroes, and this is a way to think about why, and how to motivate them,” Bailenson says.


STANFORD RUNS the most technologically advanced lab of its kind in the country. The U.S. military and NASA send people there regularly. Even if the long-term benefits were well established, Bailenson couldn’t run 45 million smokers through his lab to help them quit — or convince three times that many utility customers to save energy.

But the exclusivity afforded by expensive technology will soon give way to ubiquity, much as is happening today with 3D printing.

Virtual reality technologies are coming out on the consumer market. Consider Microsoft’s Kinect, Nintendo’s 3DS, and a smartphone-holding goggle called VR2GO. These technologies could soon be combined to create profound experiences without the costly lab.

Even without any psychological trickery, the widespread availability of virtual reality could change behaviors just by helping people to understand things in ways that were previously impossible.

Relatively cheap and portable virtual reality units could show up in appliance stores so shoppers can learn about efficiency by touring the inner workings of a clothes dryer. Families could sit down in their living rooms with their virtual reality systems and experience first-hand the impact of carbon dioxide in the depths of the oceans. (Remember to breathe.) If Opower isn’t already talking to Second Life, they should be.

“If you had asked me eight months ago if this was possible I would have said you were crazy,” Bailenson exclaims. “It’s moving very quickly and it’s time for people in the energy efficiency business to start thinking about how to integrate it.”


[stextbox id=”info”]Dr. Bailenson warns about the ethical implications of virtual reality avatars. What do you think? Share your thoughts on our Facebook Page or in our LinkedIn Group.[/stextbox]