Volunteers at a Stanford University Lab have taken to new motion-sensor suits to crawl about with virtual reality headsets on that let them see their arms and legs as cows’ limbs. How fun? Well, it doesn’t stop there: concealed speakers in the floor assault them with low-frequency sound to simulate the “jolt” of a cattle prod, while scientists poke them with sticks – with the ambition, according to associate professor Jeremy Bailenson, to decipher whether people are changed by the experience of being virtually “slaughtered”.
So far, the “lifestock” have been profoundly affected by what is an alien experience (well, sort of, more of a change of the side of the fence!).
“I truly felt like I was going to the slaughter house towards the end and I felt sad that I – as a cow – was going to die,” said one subject.
Then, to see if the effect stretches into their own personal habits, Bailenson is monitoring the eating habits of the volunteers after their visit to the slaughterhouse – to see if the experience makes them eat less meat.
The ongoing slaughterhouse experiment is being dubbed the seasoned virtual reality expert’s most radical endeavour yet.
Another volunteer called the experience of being a cow “horrifying”, saying, “”I was constantly on edge with what I would be forced to do next and what would happen when I ran out of things to do. It was horrifying to be a cow and be poked by the prong. ”
“To “become” the cow, people wear a head mounted display, then hear sound of the farms from an array of 24 speakers that surround them,” Bailenson says. While VR helmets and speakers help to establish the illusion, physical stimulus is crucial for “body transfer” – the moment where people “believe” they are in another body – he continues.
A carefully timed combination of virtual and actual shocks create an illusion which is clearly very poignant.
“The subject would see his cow avatar getting poked by a cattle prod,” Bailenson says, “At the same time, he feels a stick poke his actual side, hear a shocking sound come from the direction of the prod, and feel a surge in the floor, created by low frequency speakers hidden in the floors – that created the illusion.”
Hi-tech motion capture suits were what “transformed” people into the animals.
“We created a system that in real time could track the arm, leg, back and head movements of people that crawled in our lab on all fours,” says Bailenson.
“They wore a head mounted display that replaced their vision with a virtual illusion which showed them their own avatars walking like a cow – every millimeter their arms and legs moved was transformed into a cow’s lumber. In order to pull off this feat we designed a special vest a person wore that had LED tracking lights attached to it, and also bought knee pads to prevent subjects from chaffing on the lab carpet.”
The experiment has concluded, but Bailenson and the Stanford team are still analysing the data.
“We want to learn whether someone can someone psychologically feel as if they are another species as a result of the simulation – and if that results in increased empathy for the animals,” says Bailenson. “We are still analysing the “body transfer” subjects experienced into the cow, the empathy they felt toward the cow – and their eating habits the day following the study.”
Bailenson’s Virtual Reality department has run experiments for more than a decade – including one where young students tried on “avatars” of the elderly, and, funnily enough, Bailenson discovered that the students stopped using ageist stereotypes after having “lived” as an old person.