Cyber Universe

Tracking how the virtual world affects the real one

Sun Joo "Grace" Ahn

Director, GAVEL Lab

Associate Professor

Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication

Written by Leigh Beeson

Published 6.21.19

When The Sims first dropped in 2000, the idea of a virtual world where people made online personas that built homes, interacted with their neighbors, and otherwise went about daily life without any real objectives was a novel one.

Now, there are too many immersive games to count, and the experiences within them are shaping the world outside.

“Our virtual interactions have a fairly strong and lasting impact in terms of how we perceive the world and how we make decisions,” says Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab. “My lab is interested in how these technologies and experiences within these virtual worlds transfer into the physical world and change the way that people think, behave and make decisions.”

Thanks to a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Ahn and her colleagues are exploring how these virtual worlds can be used for good, specifically to help children become more active.

The five-year program, Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem, is about halfway through and showing promising signs. The students wear a fitness tracker and set goals for themselves. A virtual buddy keeps parents up-to-date on when their children are active and allows them to send words of encouragement. As an incentive to stay active, kids get to play with a virtual pet after they reach their activity goals.

Our virtual interactions have a fairly strong and lasting impact in terms of how we perceive the world and how we make decisions.

Grace Ahn Director, GAVEL Lab

Ahn also directs the lab where students and faculty can get hands-on experience dealing with virtual and augmented reality.

“The reason why communications scholars are interested in communication technology isn’t just because the technology is cool, which it is,” Ahn explains. “It’s because it’s very interesting to see how we—not the technology but the people who use it—decide what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to how we use it.”

For example, now that almost everyone has a smart phone, people often expect almost immediate responses to work emails, even if they are sent outside normal office hours.

In the labs, researchers can experiment with the latest virtual and augmented reality technologies, building virtual worlds and sometimes even physically moving through them using full-body-tracking technology.

“These virtual reality tools are released into the market, and we don’t know how behaviors or attitudes are changed as a result of repeated use, different content, or being exposed to the technology on a daily basis or long period of time,” says Ahn. “All technology needs time and trial and error. That’s what we’re doing here.”

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