What happens while waiting in VR?

Video games are designed to entertain us. While we enjoy ourselves as we play video games, we lose track of time and perceive it as flying by. A survey conducted in 2007 by Wood et al. showed that 99% of participants declared feeling as though time were running out while engaging in a video game. This is what experts call flow, a state in which we become deeply absorbed by an activity and lose control of a sense of self and time. 

Scientific studies seem to have focused on flow and the acceleration in the perception of time caused by virtual environments, especially in video games. However, there is a lack of research concerning the opposite effect–that is, when we’re bored and time appears “stuck”. 

Boredom, self-regulation and time perception

As part of a European Project called VirtualTimes, a 2021 study by Alvarez et al. focused on investigating boredom–defined by Fisher (1993) as an “unpleasant, transient affective state, in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest”–self-regulation and time perception.

With the aim to induce this state in a participant in a waiting situation, the researchers designed a VR environment of an empty waiting room in collaboration with Amelia Virtual Care (formerly known as Psious). 

This study was done in comparison to research undertaken by Witowska et al. (2020). The latter investigation had 97 participants wait in a real waiting room with the excuse that there was a technical problem causing a delay. The waiting situation lasted 7.5 minutes. 

In a study by Alvarez et al. (2021), 83 participants (49 women and 34 men) were told to put a headset on, being immersed in a VR waiting room, and wait as the game was taking place in another room. The waiting situation also lasted 7.5 minutes.

Like in a previous study by Witoska et al. (2020), the hypothesis was that experiencing boredom leads to a slower passage of time as thoughts about time increase, and self-regulation–used in this study as a synonym for self-control–would lead to shorter judgment of duration. This follows the theory that individuals who self-regulate better cope with boring situations in contrast to more impulsive individuals.

As VR technology is innovative and interesting, the researchers also hypothesized that the passage of time in the VR waiting room would be felt as faster in comparison to the real waiting room used in the study by Witowska et al. (2020).

The results

The results confirmed part of what the previous research showed, which was that the more subjects thought about time, the slower their subjective passage of time. On the other hand, though, contrary to the hypothesis, experiencing time was felt as slower in the virtual waiting room and thoughts related to time were higher when compared to the real waiting room. Furthermore, self-regulation had no effect on reducing the feeling of boredom.

In conclusion, participants in the virtual waiting room experiment felt significantly more bored as the judgment of duration was higher. The happier the participants felt, the faster their perception of time. Likewise, the more bored they felt, the more slowly the experience appeared to pass–which is similar to what Witowska et al. (2020) had already showed.

The finding that VR experience was felt as more boring, disconfirming the original hypothesis, can be explained in terms of participants’ expectation to find VR as entertaining. Unlike Witowska et al. (2020), Alvarez et al. (2021) did not report any correlations between self-control and duration estimation. This can be due to the possibility that participants may have not known how to react to the new VR situation and cope as they would usually do like in real life.

In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with the use of VR gaming. The experience of time can be distorted due to certain psychopathological conditions. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to provide individuals with opportunities to re-experience and normalize a variant and distorted sense of time.

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