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FCC Chairman Gets Educated on VR at Stanford

A day after the a federal appeals court upheld net neutrality rules put into place last year by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the guy who heads that agency had a chance to try out virtual reality (VR) and to ask questions of Stanford University experts about how VR might affect future policy decisions. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler visited the university specifically to check in on the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. The mission of that lab is to understand the impact of VR on interactions among people residing in digital worlds.

Wheeler used the visit to emphasize the importance of "unfettered access to the entire web," as he said in a prepared statement regarding the DC Circuit ruling. "Virtual reality shouldn't have gatekeepers," he told those participating in his Stanford visit. "It starts with an internet that is fast, fair and open."

During the event, lab founder Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication, discussed research he has been leading on how virtual experiences can change user perspective once they've "come out from under the headset," as one article described. For example, research shared three years ago found that giving people the virtual ability to fly like Superman makes them more likely to exhibit altruistic behavior in real life.

Wheeler took his own super-hero flight, tried on a different race and gender and blocked hockey shots. He also asked questions.

One area of interest was how bandwidth-hungry VR would be. Bailenson said that the obvious approach — streaming 360-degree video — online would take "significant bandwidth." Another option would be to download 3D content of an environment to a local cache, such as a computer's hard drive, and use the Internet to send information about changes to the person's position and actions. In that case, small packets of data would be transferred, lessening the impact on the internet and allowing for a smoother user experience. "You would have big bursts of data transfer as people download the models, which can be photo-realistic, but then you would be transmitting only the tracking data, which is super-efficient," Bailenson explained.

Wheeler also asked about privacy considerations. This is another area of interest in Bailenson's research. Two years ago he and a colleague published research on how small, "non-verbal" cues can predict success in an activity such as learning. In spite of the fact that VR seems private — a single user having a unique experience — because the technology tracks a multitude of data points, those could be collected to flesh out personal details about a person.

"Virtual reality technology is becoming incredibly immersive, to the point where we've shown that your brain processes it in much the same way it does real-life experiences," Bailenson told Wheeler. "We absolutely need to consider how this medium will affect people."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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