The changes due to the continuous technological evolution have aroused the increasing interest of psychology, with the general objective of understanding the characteristics and effects of the new media on individual behavior. In particular, research has focused on the relationship with these tools, modes of communication, emotions, and much more, thus focusing on all those elements that create the experience, the interaction between the individual and technology.
An important and emerging role in this field is played by the psychology of new media, also called ‘cyberpsychology’. This area of psychology is characterized by its multidisciplinary nature, as it combines knowledge from cognitive psychology, sociology, communication psychology, and ergonomics. The main objective of new media psychology is “the study, understanding, prediction, and activation of change processes that have their main origin in interaction with new media”. Concerning experience, one of the most innovative consequences to which the development of these new media has led (Tessarolo, 2007) is Disintermediation: the user becomes a “spectacle-author” by creating and editing content (Pulcini, 2006) and a “commentator” by discussing and sharing content (Riva, Pettiti and Uggé, 2007). If we go back to the present day, it is now clear that technologies have become part of our everyday life; the amount of hours spent in contact with technological tools has increased dramatically in recent years, starting from a very young age. In our contemporary societies, this is the subject of concern and negative representations. The new media are accused of creating dependency, chilling human relationships, triggering negative social dynamics, weakening writing and reading processes, and, last but not least, impoverishing learning processes. On the other hand, a need has developed to investigate the positive effects of the use of technology, to highlight the great potential of the new media on a cognitive, emotional, and social level. It is in this sense that Positive Technology was born, defined as “an applied scientific approach that uses technology to modify the characteristics of our personal experience – structuring it, augmenting it or replacing it with synthetic environments to improve its quality and increase well-being in individuals, organizations, and societies” (Riva et al., 2012). Several types of research have led to the conclusion that new technologies can foster development and well-being (Botella et al., 2012). According to these scholars, positive technology in the field of application can be divided into three different areas: hedonic technologies, eudaimonic technologies, and social/interpersonal technologies. Hedonic technologies are the first level of positive technologies and are those used to promote positive emotions, e.g. apps that improve stress management and promote relaxation. Eudemonic technologies are the second level of positive technologies and enable individuals to engage in engaging and self-fulfilling experiences, e.g. serious games. Social/interpersonal technologies are the final level and are used to support and enhance social connectedness between individuals, groups, and organizations: an interesting example is the use of social networking and pervasive computing to help reduce feelings of social isolation and depression in older people (Morris, 2005). Let us now turn to the individual experience mediated by virtual reality.
First of all, it is worth remembering that the latter in technical terms is a three-dimensional computer-generated environment in which the subject or subjects interact among themselves and with the environment as if they were really inside it. In other words, VR is a positive technology that, thanks to a visor, allows immersion in highly realistic virtual environments, characterized by involvement, interaction, and participation, within which the user becomes the active creator of his or her own experience. As a positive technology, virtual reality relies on experiential technologies, which intervene on the experience, structuring and replacing it, with the ultimate goal of intervening in the interaction. In fact, through positive technologies “it is possible to change a trend of human-computer interaction, making the interaction with new media as similar as possible to the interaction as a real environment” (Riva et al., 2012). The fundamental aspect of the VR experience is the possibility to experience the so-called sense of presence: the person feels inside the experience (being there) and, through specific commands, can interact with the scene in which he/she is. Therefore, “the subject is no longer present in the real environment in which he/she finds him/herself but is embodied in the remote or computer-simulated one” (Riva, 2012). Virtual reality can be distinguished, from a practical and technological point of view, into immersive and non-immersive. In the first case, the user is completely isolated from the external environment and is transported into the reproduced parallel reality and completely absorbed in it, thanks also to a complex set of tools (a helmet or position sensors called trackers). In the second case, however, the instruments change: the helmet is replaced by a monitor. The direct consequence is that the experience of the user changes in the two different contexts. In the latter, the digitally recreated environment has a lesser emotional impact on the subject who is inside it; it is as if the user were seeing the three-dimensional world through a window. The user can interact with the technology through an external tool (e.g. a joystick), experiencing a lesser sense of presence. In the first case, however, the movement of the head or other parts of the body corresponds with what is happening inside the virtual environment, giving the individual the possibility to experience a greater sense of presence, “that feeling of being there, in virtual space” (Steuer, 1992). This is exactly what Lombard and Ditton (1997) tell us: the level of presence depends on the user’s degree of awareness of the media capabilities of the technological tool: the higher this awareness, the lower the feeling of presence experienced and vice versa. In other words, it is not only the graphic aspect that is fundamental but also the degree of interaction with the technology itself: “a simulated environment offers a high level of presence when the user can navigate, choose, move and move objects intuitively” (Sastry and Boyd, 1998).
VRAINERS uses just this kind of technology, thanks to which it is possible to structure an immersive experience, with the ultimate objective of increasing the well-being and quality of life of the user. If on the one hand, the team is using virtual reality with the main objective of arousing positive emotions, on the other hand, they are moving towards broader results, i.e. creating experiences with a high degree of interactivity, allowing the user to experiment, get involved and optimize his or her skills. In the first case, an example is the Vrainers project carried out for a young emerging singer, for whom the video clip of his new song was created using 360° cameras. In this way, everyone will be able to view the video, either through their smartphone (or tablet) where the movement of the latter is equivalent to the movement of the image or through a virtual reality visor. In the latter case, the experience will be highly immersive compared to the former, giving the viewer the feeling “of being in a world that exists outside themselves” (Riva et al., 2004). This is just one example of what can be done with virtual reality. Vrainers is increasingly broadening its intervention in different areas, with the desire to keep training and individual wellbeing as a common thread.
I would like to conclude this short article with a statement that sums up virtual reality in one sentence, and therefore what has been set out above: “a tool that allows a specific form of communication and presence, since the person experiences being physically present in a virtual scenario and interact with it with sensations, emotions, and evaluations typical of everyday interaction with the world” (Riva, 2007).
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Degree in psychological sciences and techniques from the University of L’Aquila. Master’s degree in Psychology of Well-being: empowerment, rehabilitation, and positive technologies, at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. Master’s degree in Sport Psychology. Specialized in the use of Positive Technologies applied to different psychological fields, conducting an experimental study on cognitive enhancement and technical-motor gestures on young competitive tennis players through an integrated training of mental training and virtual reality.