Background. Modern technologies provide a wide range of opportunities for studying different types of social processes and phenomena. Currently many original social studies have been done with the use of virtual reality technologies. The effectiveness of their application has been shown for the study of verbal and nonverbal communication; the processes of ethno-cultural identity; and for teaching social skills, as well as correcting social anxiety and ethnic attitudes. One of the very real question concerning spatial behavior during communication with partners from other ethnic groups, however, has not been studied very much.
Objective. In our study we explored proxemic behavior in subjects’ face-to-face interactions with avatars of in-group and out-group ethnic appearance. Using the CAVE virtual reality system, we studied preferred interpersonal distances in carrying out memory tasks during interaction with the avatars.
Design. Three virtual environments with avatars of different ethnic appearance were developed. Each virtual scene represented a room where three avatars of the same ethnicity were standing. Their appearance was associable with one of three ethnic groups– the Slavic, North Caucasian, or the Central Asian. The participants (all of whom identified themselves as Russians) were immersed in the virtual scenes with the help of the CAVE virtual reality system. They were instructed to keep in mind as many details of the avatars’ appearance as they could.
During the task’s execution the interpersonal distances between the participants and the avatars were registered. After leaving the CAVE, the participants were asked to answer questions about the details of avatars’ appearance, and to fill out a questionnaire assessing the Presence Effect in virtual environments. The identification accuracy of the avatars’ appearance details and the Presence effect were measured. The interpersonal distances were analyzed for the area around the direction of mutual gaze.
Results. The results showed that participants preferred to keep closer interpersonal distances from the avatars of the same ethnic group as their own. During interaction with avatars belonging to another ethnic group, significantly larger interpersonal distances were preferred. A significant correlation between the interpersonal distance and the Presence Effect was also revealed.
Conclusion. Virtual reality technology provides a unique and valuable tool for social researchers, including in ethnic attitude studies. A complex method of measuring interpersonal distances and the Presence Effect allows us to assess the main variables during social interaction with high accuracy. The virtual environments designed for this study can be applied successfully not only for studying proxemic behavior, but also for accomplishing other tasks, such as developing communication skills and forming positive attitudes towards ethnic out-groups.
Keywords: interethnic attitudes, proxemics, nonverbal communication, compensation effect, mutual gaze, CAVE virtual reality technology, avatar, Presence Effect