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Animation Aids Psychology in 'Second Life' Experiment

Bournemouth University’s computer animation experts have been awarded a major grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to support a three-year project linking animation to psychology.

The £290,000 award will support Professor Jian Zhang and his colleagues in the BU-based National Centre for Computer Animation (NCCA) over the next three years as they develop improvements to lifelike animated humans.

The new and improved ‘virtual’ humans developed by the NCCA will be used by project partners at UCL (University College London) and the University of Lancaster in a series of psychology experiments, observed by the Metropolitan Police.

The project will test how people respond to extreme social situations - particularly the ‘bystander effect’ - using an immersive virtual environment like Second Life where real people interact with each other socially through lifelike animated characters.

The bystander effect suggests that the more witnesses there are to an emergency, the less likely an individual bystander is to intervene. This phenomenon was identified as a particular consequence of the assault and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964 which was witnessed by some 38 people, all of whom remained bystanders and failed to come to Kitty’s aid.

Scientists have previously been unable to study the bystander effect, even under controlled conditions, due to ethical and practical reasons. However, the advanced animated humans and environments created by the NCCA will give scientists a unique opportunity to test the bystander effect in the context of a ‘controlled’ immersive virtual environment.

“We want to dramatically improve the quality of these social virtual environments,” said Professor Zhang, Director of BU’s Computer Animation Research Centre. “We also want to contribute to the growing body of research that uses virtual environments as a laboratory for social psychological research.

“Other studies have already shown that real people tend to respond realistically in virtual social situations,” Professor Zhang continued. “As our real participants take part in the study within the virtual environments we’ll be creating, we will measure their physiological, behavioural, cognitive and emotional responses to that environment. These responses will help us to learn even more about the bystander effect and should provide further insight into many other psychological phenomenon.”

Professor Zhang also hopes that the techniques developed through the project may have applications in 3D computer games.

Charles Elder | alfa
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