NSF grants $297,929 to virtual worlds researchers

Press Release: IU shares $297,929 NSF grant to study use of 3D virtual worlds by business and education enterprises

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The National Science Foundation has awarded $297,929 to a multi-disciplinary team from Indiana University and Arizona State University. The award supports on-going research concerned with the use of computer-generated 3D virtual environments by business and educational enterprises.

These environments provide spaces where users, via digital representations known as avatars, can interact with one another as well as digital objects. While such virtual spaces have been well-studied in military applications and gaming contexts, limited research has examined their potential in collaborative teamwork contexts.

More specifically, efforts here center on understanding whether these environments can facilitate the performance of organizational teams whose members are physically separated. The research extends an earlier NSF grant, valued at $203,549, that resulted in a scale to measure perceptions of collaborative virtual presence (CVP) and examine its link to performance.

Anne Massey

“Presence is often considered a key characteristic of 3D environments and describes the degree to which an individual feels they are in the virtual space versus being in the real world,” explained the project’s lead researcher, Anne P. Massey, dean’s research professor and professor of information systems at the IU Kelley School of Business.

A question that was unanswered in the first study was whether or not higher perceptions of presence by collaborators actually matters in relation to their performance.

“Companies are interested in using 3D environments for a variety of business applications, including on-boarding, training, and product development,” added Massey, who also is associate vice provost for faculty and academic affairs at IU Bloomington. “However, there are costs associated with design and use. Understanding whether or how presence relates to performance will influence the amount of resources devoted to developing these spaces.”

Results of the first study included a way to measure presence — a scale called CVP — and provided evidence of a positive link to performance. The new study will take that research and attempt to further validate the scale through the use of physiological measurements and eye-tracking techniques.

Jeanne Johnston

Other project researchers are Jeanne Johnston, assistant professor of kinesiology in IU’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation; Mitzi Montoya, vice provost and dean of the College of Technology and Innovation at ASU; and Christopher Sanchez, assistant professor in the Applied Psychology Program at ASU.

In the new NSF study, the researchers want to show that their perceptual CVP scale is valid and also understand what factors influence CVP. To do this, via a series of experiments, the researchers will be collecting phyisiological data using heart-rate monitors, galvanic skin-response devices and eye-tracking tools.

“Correlating physiological measures with visual attention and perceptual feedback is the next step in validating the perceptual CVP scale,” according to Johnston. “Behavioral indicators help overcome shortcomings of perceptual measures.”

The research will result in a measurement methodology for assessing behavioral indicators of collaborative virtual presence and provide tools foundational for future development and testing of collaborative virtual environments.