About once a week I get a visit at the lab, in the heart of Silicon Valley, from venture capitalists or start-up companies that are racing to leverage business applications that capitalize on the virtual self. Insurance companies want to encourage preventive medicine, market research firms want to test consumer behavior, fashion boutiques want to allow people to try on fancy outfits from their living rooms.
The inspiration for some of our research can be traced to science fiction, which first explored the idea of virtual doppelgangers. In his 1984 novel “Neuromancer,”William Gibson describes the intense psychological reaction that a woman experiences upon seeing her doppelganger perform unseemly acts. While Gibson chooses to focus on the darker side of human nature, for the past decade my lab has used doppelgangers to build and test more positive applications.
Consider research by Jesse Fox, a graduate student from the lab who is now an assistant professor at Ohio State University. She wants to help solve the obesity epidemic. Despite the onslaught of public service campaigns lauding healthy eating and exercise, the United States remains one of the leading nations on the obesity chart.
Fox designed a virtual approach to promoting exercise for people reluctant to get off the couch. As her experimental subjects exercised, they watched their doppelgangers lose weight in front of their eyes — and then gain it all back when the subject’s activity level went toward coach potato. This powerful depiction of the consequence of failure inspired most subjects to increase their level of exercise. In fact, over the next 24 hours, the doppelganger experience caused the subjects to exercise 40 minutes longer than members of a control group who did not see the effect on their virtual selves.
In another study, researcher Kathryn Segovia wanted to find out whether doppelgangers create false memories. In her experiment, more than half of elementary school children who saw their virtual selves swimming with whales believed, five days later, that they had physically done so.
There’s a danger to false memories — but what if holograms helped us see the future? Hal Hershfield, an assistant business professor at New York University who was a graduate student at the Stanford Center on Longevity, wondered if doppelgangers could help solve an enduring economic conundrum: How to persuade 20-somethings to save for retirement earlier than most of them do now.
Some members of his study group watched their virtual selves age-morph into sexagenarians. Later, when asked a series of questions about retirement, they were more inclined to put money into savings than subjects who either looked at other people of retirement age or who merely imagined their future lives as retirees. Hershfield’s experiments inspired a change in fiscal behavior, and investment firms are now exploring how to integrate the technology into their portfolio-management software.
In Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi thriller “Minority Report,” Tom Cruise’s character looks up at a billboard and encounters an advertisement that uses his own name, thanks to eye-recognition technology that instantly identified him. Sun Joo Ahn, now an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Georgia, wanted to take this fictional construct a step further: What if consumers looked at a billboard and saw themselves using a product they had never seen before?