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Eye contact is different in virtual reality and in real life

Published on 22.6.2020
Tampere University
Virtual reality has developed rapidly in recent years, making new kinds of virtual experiences possible. A recent study from Tampere University found that eye contact in virtual reality does not evoke similar physiological reactions as eye contact in a natural interaction.

Because of recent developments in virtual reality technology, it is possible for instance for gamers to feel as if they are physically present in virtual worlds of online games. Interaction with other players can be very natural, because communication in VR can rely on natural gestures such as hand and eye movements. However, the reactions to these gestures are not quite the same as in real life. According to a recent study, nonverbal cues shown in virtual reality do not evoke similar automatic reactions as they do in a natural interaction.

Researchers from Tampere University were investigating physiological responses to eye contact in two different kinds of interactive situations. In one situation, participants faced a live person, and in another situation, they faced a virtual character controlled by the other person in virtual reality. The study was comparing effects of direct gaze (eye contact) and averted eye gaze on skin conductance and heart rate. These physiological responses reflect, among other things, activity of the autonomic nervous system and emotional arousal.

Just like in earlier studies, eye contact in the natural interaction evoked strong physiological responses in participants. Eye contact with the other person increased skin conductance and momentarily slowed down heart rate. This indicates that participants’ attention was directed towards the face looking at them, and eye contact increased their autonomic arousal. In virtual reality, however, eye contact had no effects on the responses. Participants responded similarly regardless of whether the virtual character was looking towards them or not.

“These results show that eye contact in virtual reality is not similar to real eye contact. Virtual characters do not evoke similar bodily responses as real people, and therefore virtual interaction does not feel similar to real interaction”, says postdoctoral researcher Aleksi Syrjämäki from the Faculty of information technology and communication sciences.

The researchers believe the differing responses may be due to the appearance of the virtual characters. If the characters do not look lifelike, they may evoke weaker reactions than live people. In the future, technological development may therefore make virtual eye contact more stimulating than it is today.

“Even though virtual reality technology is really impressive these days, there is still lots of room for development”, Syrjämäki continues. “Evoking lifelike responses in virtual reality could make it an even more powerful experience. It could make entertainment more engaging, but most importantly, it would help us feel connected to other people via virtual reality.”

The study is available at:
Syrjämäki, A. H., Isokoski, P., Surakka, V., Pasanen, T. P., & Hietanen, J. K. (2020). Eye contact in virtual reality – A psychophysiological study. Computers in Human Behavior.

Contact information:
Tutkijatohtori Aleksi Syrjämäki, +358 50 477 3784, aleksi.syrjamaki [at]