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        Important Information

        On May 28, Chancellor Gary S. May wrote:

        “The events of this week also cause me to believe even more strongly, if that’s possible, in building an inclusive environment that recognizes and respects people of all backgrounds and experiences. I remain committed to that and hope you will do what you can to eliminate racism, sexism, and other negative influences on our progression as a nation.”

        We join Chancellor May in these efforts toward building diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment in the Department of Communication and at the University of California Davis. To learn more, including a list of resources are available for students in crisis, need of support, or who have experienced racism or bias, click?here.

        Important Covid-19 Information:

        In light of the Covid-19 situation, ?all UC Davis Fall 2020 courses will move to virtual instruction. ?As a result, the department’s administrative functions have moved to remote work conditions until further notice. ?At this time, the preferred method of contact for departmental staff members is e-mail; please visit our?administrative staff contact page?for further information.

        Communication in Virtual Reality and Video Games

        In the VICTR Lab, Associate Professor Jorge Pe?a and students study communication technology—how people interact with the Internet, video games, virtual reality and other digital technology, and how these interactions affect real world behavior.

        Undergraduate research assistant Emily Fong sits in one room of a two-room laboratory suite in Kerr Hall. A curtain-covered window separates the rooms. On Emily's side of the curtain hang instructions for an experiment. A sticky note pasted to a nearby iMac commands: “RECORD the Session or DIE!”

        On the other side of the window a research participant waits to talk?with Emily in virtual reality. After briefing the participant, her?lab partner,?Abir?Rahman, walks in the room and tells her it’s time to begin the experiment.?

        “I’ve done so many of these, I know the drill,”?she?says.??

        She puts on an Oculus Rift?headset that covers her?eyes?and?ears and then stares at the?computer?screen until a virtual environment appears. A blonde female avatar?representing the participant?sits in a chair in an uneven chaparral setting with shrubs, a trail,?and?off?in the distance, a house. The camera shifts as Emily moves her head?to look at the avatar.?Emily?doesn’t know if the?avatar?actually looks like?the participant, nor has the participant?seen the real Emily.?Abir?introduces?the?avatars?to each other, and Emily begins?the virtual conversation.?

        Welcome to the UC Davis Virtual Interaction and Communication Technology, or VICTR Lab where Associate Professor Jorge Pe?a and his large team of?students?study communication technology—how people interact with the Internet, video games, virtual reality and other digital technology, and how these interactions affect real world behavior.?

        Video games and the real world

        Since the VICTR Lab’s inception, Pe?a has been?particularly interested in how these new technologies affect how we view ourselves,?and the?automatic?processes that occur when we encounter them.??

        portrait photo“I think a lot of people pay attention to the question of media effects, like, ‘Are my kids OK if they play a specific video game?’ [or] ‘Can we change people’s attitudes if we present them with advertisements in a video game, for example?’” he said. “Questions about influence and habit take the front seat in many ways.”?

        Video games have always been a part of Pe?a’s life. His family had a video game?and movie?importing business in his native Chile, giving him access to lots of games growing up. He still enjoys gaming and tries to play when he has time. “I?didn’t want to be the person that studies something that they hate,” he said. “I want to know what’s out there to have an informed opinion about it, but?mostly?[I want to]?implement them in my own studies.”??

        Playing the latest games also helps him in teaching his classes on communication in video games and virtual environments, he said. “I would argue that part of it is street cred. I want to meet the students where they are.”?

        Using avatars to study stereotypes

        The?VICTR Lab?opened shortly after Pe?a’s?arrival?at UC Davis?in 2013. At first, all data collection was?done by graduate researchers. It?has since expanded to involve undergraduate students, two rooms?and a more interdisciplinary approach. “It’s been a gradual process of building the lab, but right now it’s in very good shape,” said doctoral researcher Subuhi Khan, who has been working with Pe?a since the lab’s humble beginnings.?

        Avatar of a man sitting in a chapperal virtual environment.The most common form of research done at the lab is avatar manipulation. Participants are asked to create an avatar and given instructions to make it look like or unlike themselves, depending on the experiment. They then have a conversation in one of these virtual environments with another avatar that the team?controls. They test how people react to different-looking avatars in different environments, often using?avatars that imply social stereotypes.?They have looked at how race/ethnicity, gender, body size, and the color of the avatar’s clothes have affected responses.?According to Khan, this is a popular area of research for undergraduate research as well as a major interest of Pe?a’s.??

        This was the type of experiment Emily and?Abir?were running.?In that?particular experiment, designed in collaboration with visiting Mexican scholar Salvador?Alvídrez, half the participants conversed in the chaparral setting while the other half conversed in a UC Davis-themed environment.?Emily was using an avatar named “Maria,” who is supposed to be a female student born in Mexico.?The goal was to see whether having the common group identity of?UC Davis student?carried over to the virtual world and whether it would improve the?participant’s?perceptions and attitude toward?a Latino student, Maria.

        Body image and treating depression??

        exercise avatarsOne of the lab’s?best-known?studies?found that players using an obese-looking avatar were less?physically?active while playing a motion-based tennis game than players using a thin-looking avatar.?The?effect was replicated with men and women.?The findings, published in February 2016, attracted media coverage from?CBS San Francisco,?Canada’s CBC?and India’s NDTV, among others.?

        In another paper published in March 2017,?Subuhi?Khan and?Pe?a?reported?that?persuasive messages given to participants before?playing?mental health-oriented?video games can?help?treat?depression?by making?them?feel like they are in control of their illness. A forthcoming paper looks at how?anti-drunken?driving?advertisements?embedded in?the background of?first-person shooter games?persuaded participants not to drive or ride their bikes?under the influence.

        Student-inspired research?

        Pe?a?and his team are constantly coming up with new ideas for possible studies, which keeps the lab as busy as any on campus. “He’s got a great attitude in terms of encouraging new ideas,” Khan said of Pe?a.?

        However,?Pe?a says?students are?the source?of?new questions to explore. “The students change the research process in the sense that they may give you new ideas or apply the knowledge that you’ve generated in your career to a context you were not thinking about or not even cognizant about.??

        The influx of new ideas keeps the?lab?organized and?constantly busy.?Each experiment has a team that consists of a graduate or undergraduate researcher and two or three undergraduate research assistants like Emily and?Abir?who run the experiments and interact with participants.?Experiments are scheduled in half-hour to hour sessions from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with anywhere from eight to 15 research assistants rotating in and out each week.?

        “We’re always like, ‘Aha! That would be a great idea to test and something to do,’” said Pe?a,?“but then it comes to the nitty-gritty of grounding it to a procedure.”?

        Reliability in social science research

        two students, one holding a cell phone and one wearing a virtual reality headsetProcedure is an extremely?important part of the VICTR Lab. It sets a high standard for data collection,?making sure to?repeat the same procedure over a hundred times to improve?the?reliability of their findings. This requires thoroughly planning each procedure and adequately training research assistants to?follow?it.?This explains Emily’s familiarity with the experiment drill and the dramatic “RECORD?the Session?or DIE!” sticky note.?

        “It’s bittersweet understanding that there’s a very tedious process to it, but it’s something that’s ultimately worth?it,?and we stress those principles,” said Michael Carter,?a graduating senior?recently admitted to the Communication graduate program. Carter?was taking one of Pe?a’s classes when he joined the lab.?When he?got an idea for?his own?research project,?he?pitched it to Pe?a, and soon?he was?conducting?an?independent?study?about the effect viewing Facebook profiles has on how we see ourselves and how we think others see us.??

        “It became a very immersive task and it opened up a lot of doors and a lot of experiences that I wouldn’t normally have if I didn’t pursue this opportunity just going through my normal coursework,” he said. He plans to continue his research in the?lab as a graduate student.?

        Subuhi?Khan, a fourth-year doctoral researcher who is developing an app to help people with depression ease their symptoms, said she's gained broad training from doing research from inception to publication.??

        “I have learned a lot from Professor Pe?a,” she said. “He not only teaches lab work. He is a great guide when it comes down to writing. I think he’s improved my writing quite a lot.”

        The importance of undergraduate research?

        Pe?a encourages undergraduates to get hands-on research experience. “It complements the education really, so together it makes it, for lack of a better word, more real,” he said.?“Otherwise it’s just papers?to read?or terms to memorize.”?

        Student in a UC Davis cap sitting in front of a computer screen, looking over shoulderGetting involved with the VICTR lab is easy. Students of all experience levels can apply to join either as?research assistants?like Emily?and?Abir, who help run the experiments,?or?as?independent researchers?like Carter, who design and conduct their own studies.???

        The?lab has?also?taken an increasingly interdisciplinary approach, collaborating with computer science students to develop the apps and virtual environments used in their studies.??

        “If people have ideas that even faintly fit into?the persuasive effects of?communication technology;?ideas from health, ideas from health, ideas from sports, ideas from mental health, anything,” said Khan, “if they fit with?how?communication technology?can shape behavior, then they should definitely swing by Professor Pe?a’s office.”?

        ?Noah Pflueger-Peters, DSS writing intern