HUMAN+ Research Profile: Dr. Lauren Buck, Human Connections in Virtual Spaces

Dr Lauren Buck’s research with the HUMAN+ programme explores how people interact within virtual reality (VR). She does this by looking at the effects hardware and software elements have on interactions in virtual spaces. This entails, for example, examining the properties of head-mounted displays or the appearance of virtual objects and avatars to determine what effect they have on a user’s perception of the environment.

“If I interact with different avatars that I perceive differently in VR as opposed to how I perceive someone in real life, how does that affect my personal space, for example?” Buck asks. “Is there a difference when we interact with avatars that are decoupled from the driver’s own physical appearance, or that possess characteristics that we’re not used to seeing in real life?” These questions have enabled her to explore how teams of people interact in VR, and consider the technicalities and graphics required to establish high fidelity multi-user experiences. Her research on understanding particular behaviours in virtual spaces has been useful in a variety of fields beyond computer science, including cognitive psychology and neuroscience. She notes that her work will ultimately also help us to establish different behavioural patterns that will arise when people come together and interact in virtual spaces.

Buck’s interest in VR leads back to her graduate work in computer science and psychology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. The overall thesis of her PhD was understanding how people perceive their personal space in virtual environments as opposed to the real world. “My studies were based on Gibsonian theory, which states that the environment affords us action capabilities that are based on our own bodily dimensions and what’s available in it. We have different perceptions of these action capabilities in VR.” She studied both egocentric depth perception and also explored how people navigate and acquire spatial knowledge in VR. This, she notes, builds into her Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship with HUMAN+, as she is looking deeper into how space is perceived in multi-user groups.

“I feel there is no way that I could do what I do were it not a multidisciplinary study,” she observes. Understanding how people interact with their environment requires knowledge from many different disciplines. She currently works with experts in psychology, communications, and design engineering. “A good way to think about it is: we have to start with core elements from computer science and graphics, and then we need to bring humanity into it. There are many elements that have to come together because we’re trying to create a virtual representation of real life.” Her co-supervisor, Dr. Jennifer O’Meara, is part of that equation. “Jennifer makes me think beyond the more technical side of what I do. Her research is in Film, so we’re both really interested in the effects experiences have on users. Our conversations have encouraged me to pursue an understanding of the broader social implications of extended reality.”

Her two HUMAN+ supervisors are Dr Rachel McDonnell (School of Computer Science and Statistics) and Dr Jennifer O’Meara (School of Creative Arts). Buck is located in the ADAPT Centre where she is working on a blend of computer graphics and film studies. Discussing her mentorship, Dr O’Meara observes that, “Lauren’s cross-disciplinary research, and the broader HUMAN+ programme, has been very useful in terms of introducing me to colleagues from across college (such as in Computer Science) whose work on creative technologies intersects with my screen studies approach to this area.

The first year of Buck’s HUMAN+ programme has been “a learning curve.” As this is her first position as a postdoctoral scholar, she says, “it’s been really helpful and invaluable. What we’re doing is stepping into a role where we see academia through the lens of a research professional. I have learned a lot of time management and work skills.” She is also stepping into new areas: recently she has been working with new statistical methods, as well as different types of evaluation methods. “I’ve always worked exclusively with quantitive data, but I’m learning how to incorporate qualitative data into papers, to analyse and assess it.”

In comparison to her time as a PhD researcher, she is now working on many projects and helping to manage some of Dr McDonnell’s students. Alongside her main HUMAN+ project, to give just one example of many, she is also exploring avatar choices. She’s inviting people to design avatars for social virtual reality applications, to explore why they make particular design choices: this allows her to consider the connections between the design and the personality they ascribe to their avatars, and how that personality differs from the self. She wants to understand how this could potentially change the way users interact.

She notes that she has also benefited from interacting with and gaining the perspectives of her peers on the programme. For example, HUMAN+ Fellow Dr. Nicola Palladino, whose expertise is the safe regulation of online environments. “I’m very interested in security and privacy in relation to virtual reality. There are many concerning aspects of digital media, including how tech companies are using data. I’ve written a couple of papers looking at potential unique security and privacy issues that can arise from virtual reality technology. I value hearing Nicola’s legal perspective on these problems.”

How has Buck found Trinity as a centre of research? “It is a very collaborative place,” she observes, as she has met researchers from many different departments. “Everyone is very progressive. I feel very lucky, because everyone is very welcoming and very good at what they do. I love that about academia. Everyone is so diverse.” Indeed, she will be adding to Trinity’s collaborative atmosphere in a significant way herself next year, as she and her supervisor Dr. McDonnell will be hosting the ACM Symposium on Applied Perception in the Trinity Long Room Hub.

She has already taken the opportunity during her HUMAN+ fellowship to embark on many international collaborations with researchers, including Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab; Dr. Michele Geronazzo, Associate Professor in Design Engineering at both Imperial College London and the University of Padova; Dr. Brendan Rooney, Assistant Professor in the UCD School of Psychology and Director of the Media and Entertainment Psychology Lab; and Gareth Young, Interdisciplinary Assistant Professor in Trinity’s School of Computer Science and Statistics. She notes that she has been able to expand her European research network in a way she could not have done from the US.

It’s perhaps no wonder she values collaboration so highly, considering this is exactly what she wants to foster in virtual spaces. As she begins the second half of her HUMAN+ fellowship, Buck plans to publish key findings from motion capture data that will give us a glimpse into group behavioural patterns in both face-to-face and virtual interactions. She wants to drive her research in a direction that helps scientists and developers understand the implications that both low and high level design choices have on interactions in virtual spaces. Ultimately, she believes that virtual reality will have a large impact on our daily lives, and wants to understand how it will shape us as a society and how we can use it for good. Whether it be in industry or academia, it is important to Buck to continue her research after the HUMAN+ fellowship.

Article written by Dr Sarah Cullen