Haley Hatfield wins Top Paper award for research on racial bias in virtual reality

Haley Hatfield, a PhD student from El Dorado, Kansas, recently was awarded Top Paper honors from The Human Communication and Technology Division (HCTD) of the National Communication Association (NCA).

“I was a bit in shock, to be honest,” Hatfield said. “I care so much about this project and put so much of myself into it.”

Hatfield, along with her co-authors, submitted a paper titled: “Confronting Whiteness through Virtual Humans: A review of 20 years of research in prejudice and racial bias using virtual environments.”

The paper analyzes 53 studies that use virtual humans in the realm of video games or virtual reality and highlights areas where previous research did not display a historical understanding of racial inequality.

“When we interact with technology, it is easy to see it as being neutral or incapable of having biases,” Hatfield said of her research team’s findings. “It can be easy to forget that technology is created by biased humans and subsequently used by biased humans. And in many cases, these biases can become replicated within virtual spaces.”

Hatfield will present her findings to fellow researchers later this year in Seattle. (photo submitted)

Hatfield’s research is conducted in the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) with Grace Ahn and in the Brain, Body and Media Lab (BBAM) with Glenna Read. Hatfield’s focus is understanding the relationship between virtual reality and attitudes attributed to systemic racism and white privilege.

“I was so impressed with Haley’s tenacity and motivation,” said Ahn. “She always puts in a great deal of thought into her writing and every new draft she showed me was dramatically better than the earlier one.”

The paper emphasizes that virtual reality gives users a unique chance to feel experiences from others’ perspective. Hatfield says that opportunity makes it all the more important to be responsible and informed when portraying race in virtual environments.

“Moving forward, it will take a lot more listening from those who have been in the majority for so long and for those same people to continuously work to help uncover and responsibly dismantle systems of oppression within research and their personal lives,” said Hatfield.

Much of the research for this project occurred in the midst of the pandemic, when team collaboration was more difficult and feedback could be constrained due to distance. Ahn says those challenges made the work all the more impressive.

“She (Hatfield) is asking critical questions that force us to re-examine how we view and discuss technological advancements in communication, and I was glad that the reviewers agreed with us in seeing the significance of those discussions,” said Ahn. “We hope that this paper serves as an impetus to begin these difficult but important discussions. VR is a new and cool technology, but technological innovations alone are unable to resolve the problem of structural inequity and racism.”

This paper was Hatfield’s first submission to NCA. She will present the findings in person at NCA’s annual convention in Seattle in November.

Hatfield is in the AdPR track of the PhD program and aspires to become a tenured research professor where she can lead her own VR lab.

Postdoctoral Researcher Joomi Lee wins dissertation award

Joomi Lee, a postdoctoral researcher in the Games and Virtual Environments Lab at Grady College, has won the prestigious Annie Lang Dissertation Award.

The competitive award is presented annually by the Information Systems Division of the International Communication Association.

Lee received the award based on the dissertation she wrote as she finished her doctoral degree at Michigan State University. The dissertation is titled “Adaptive Behavior in Sandbox Games: How Motivation Shapes Use of Affordances in Virtual Worlds” and investigates patterns of behavior people exhibit while playing a video game.

Lee grew up playing video games and has always been fascinated with the way people socialize and facilitate different types of behavior while playing games.

Her dissertation studied player’s motivations, or what they want to while playing a game compared with their perceptions of in-game affordances, or what do they have the ability to do within the game. For her research, Lee created a sandbox game similar to Minecraft to examine how players with different motivational tendencies, such as risk-taking and risk-aversive traits, make behavioral choices in the game world.  As an example, a risk-averse player will not explore the game environment at night with monsters as much as a risk-taking player, who seeks out monsters and threatening situations in the game.

“I am interested in bridging the gap between motivation as a psychological process and the actual behavior of game players as they interact with the virtual world,” Lee said.

Lee said she expects her research will contribute to both communication scholars as well as game designers.

The Annie Lang Dissertation Award is especially meaningful to Lee because Annie Lang was Lee’s advisor while she was pursuing a master’s degree at Indiana University and Lang is retiring this year.

After earning her degrees at Indiana University and Michigan State, Lee came to UGA so she could work with Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, director of GAVEL.

“Dr. Ahn is my role model,” Lee said. “I wanted to work with Dr. Ahn to see how to apply communication theories and psychological processes with immersive media. I am grateful to work here and to learn from her expertise.”

Lee’s work in the GAVEL focuses on two projects: first, the use of virtual reality for vaccine communication and acceptance, and second, exploring immersive virtual reality to help people overcome physical distance for social and professional applications.

“Here at UGA I am applying those psychological concepts to promote meaningful behaviors in practical terms and change behavior in the real world, not just the virtual world,” Lee said.

Ahn has been grateful for Lee’s insight and experience.

“Dr. Joomi Lee has been a stellar addition to our research team at the Games and Virtual Environments Lab,” said Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, director of GAVEL. “She has the rare combination of a strong theoretical foundation, methodological rigor and a deep understanding of emerging technologies. I am really looking forward to watching her future career unfold as a rising star in the field.”

Lee plans to use her experience with GAVEL as the building block for the next step of her research and teaching career.

She is off to a good start.

Grady associate professor tests virtual reality program in Brunswick

Virtual reality is no longer just a futuristic technology found only in sci-fi movies and video games. Now, VR programs are being used for treatment of PTSD, training medical students, and now, preparing at-risk communities for natural disasters.

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, an associate professor of advertising, developed a virtual reality program that recently made its debut at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s open house on Sept. 26 in Brunswick, Georgia. The project is designed to familiarize coastal residents with the dangers of storm surges and how to prepare for a hurricane.

Ahn, the director of the Games and Virtual Environments Lab, created the program in collaboration with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s coastal resilience specialist Jill Gambill, a Public Service faculty member at the University of Georgia, serving as the Coastal Community Resilience Specialist for UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.

The VR program was funded by an Interdisciplinary Seed Grant awarded by the president of the University of Georgia in June 2017. Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant provided supplemental funding to bring the project to completion.

Grace Ahn demonstrates the VR hurricane simulation to Jill Gambill on August 16 in the GAVEL Lab at Grady College. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Virtual reality is an immersive simulation that allows users to see, hear and interact with the created environment. Those testing the hurricane VR wore headsets and used handheld controllers to make decisions within the simulated situation.

“This was a very integrative project, combining [Ahn’s] expertise in VR design with my knowledge of storm surge and hurricane risks,” said Gambill, who is also a student in the Integrative Conservation PhD program at UGA.

In an interview with Future of Storytelling, Ahn says that VR technology is able to change behaviors in a way information alone cannot. By actively participating with VR, the user is invested in the given scenario and can see the personalized consequences of certain behaviors first-hand.

The hurricane VR program attempts to encourage users to make preparations and have a plan in place in the event of a storm surge. The program allows users to customize a coastal home, which is later damaged by a storm. The users then have the option of elevating their home by 10 feet, putting it out of reach of flood waters and storm surge. This action along with following suggested guidelines and emergency protocols protect themselves and their home from the storm.

“We’re trying to see if people understand that making these preparations is not as difficult as people might think,” said Ahn. “Coming back to your life after a hurricane may be a lot easier if you make these preparations.”

Georgia has been impacted by four hurricanes in the last four years: Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Hurricane Irma in 2017, Hurricane Michael in 2018, and Hurricane Dorian in early September 2019.

“These disasters took lives, damaged homes, businesses and critical infrastructure, disrupted livelihoods and had detrimental financial implications for the state,” said Gambill.

By educating coastal Georgians and others across the country on storm surge preparation, the VR program has the potential to mitigate the dangers of these natural disasters.

The hurricane VR was piloted at the open house to check the functionality of the program. Ahn and Gambill wanted to make sure users understood the instructions given in the simulation and could navigate the world without confusion.

Feedback from the users at the open house is being used to improve the program, which is estimated to be finalized by the end of the academic schoolyear.

“The VR is part of a larger effort, in terms of UGA researchers’ efforts to adapt to climate change and increase coastal area resilience,” said Ahn.

The final version of the VR program will be used as a teaching tool by UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant.


Grace Ahn of Grady faculty leads $3.3 million grant award

Creating sustainable habits to increase physical activity and improve health is a goal many people share.

Now, thanks in part to a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of Georgia are using virtual reality to help children develop a more active lifestyle.

“The Virtual Fitness Buddy Ecosystem: Using Digital Technology to Promote and Sustain Moderate-to Vigorous Intensive Physical Activity in Children,” will fund a five-year program through the after-school program sponsored by the Metro Atlanta YMCA. Children ages 6- to 10-years-old will participate with their parents in the program.

“With this grant, we will try to encourage kids to exercise more, learn how to communicate with their parents regarding the exercise, and maintain and sustain a level of physical activity that they experience after school,” said Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, associate professor of advertising UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and principal investigator for the study.

The virtual dog that children interact with does a series of tricks including fetch, roll-over and stand-up, among others.
The virtual dog that children interact with does a series of tricks including fetch, roll-over and stand-up, among others.

Each child participating in the study will wear a personal fitness tracker, like a Fitbit, and set personal physical fitness goals. A virtual buddy kiosk will automatically detect each child’s physical activity status and send real-time updates to parents via text messages, even when they are not with the children.

One of the keys to the program will be social support from the parents. Every time the child participates in physical activity, the virtual buddy kiosk will send a text message to the parents notifying them of the activity. They can, in turn, send a message back to the child encouraging them and motivating them to maintain the activity. Parents can also closely monitor the child’s physical activity progress over time through a password-protected website specially created for the project.

Once the physical activity goals have been reached, children will be able to interact with a personalized virtual pet to as a reward. Using these everyday communication devices, the virtual pet, children and parents will be able to interact seamlessly together to create a robust ecosystem of support so that children can integrate physical activity into their daily lives.

Ahn says a lot of parents want to be involved with their child’s activity level and have good intentions of doing so, but don’t have the resources available to them while they work.

“We are presenting an intervention that allows them to be involved and that allows their children to be involved,” said Ahn. “We see a lot of excitement and willingness to take part in this.”

Ahn predicts that by harnessing the power of technology to connect people and devices, physical activity among children will increase, and will be maintained over extended periods of time.

“Dr. Ahn’s work explores issues critical to the health and vitality of American children, using the very latest in digital technology,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “Her research really represents Grady’s depth in emerging media technologies that can be used to address so many different issues of vital importance to citizens.”

Several successful pilot studies have already been conducted over a three-day time period to test the feasibility of bringing virtual reality to children of this age group. This grant allows the study to become much larger and increase the trial period to three months and include 720 children and their parents.

“With an innovative and multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Ahn and her colleagues are working to help young people lead healthier and more active lives,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Pamela Whitten. “They exemplify how the breadth of the expertise at the University of Georgia makes this institution uniquely positioned to address some of the most important challenges facing our state and world.”

When the study is complete, a three-month, six-month and 12-month follow up will be conducted to see if the physical activity levels were sustained. Self-reports of data evaluating the continued interaction between the parents and children will be recorded, along with physical activity levels as read by the personal fitness trackers. Results will be compared with a control group that will have the physical fitness trackers, but not the virtual buddy kiosk nor the parental interaction.

In addition to the benefits of increased physical activity among children and increased involvement with the parents, Ahn said the program has the potential to reduce labor costs with traditional methods of hiring and training personnel who work as physical coaches.

Five other researchers at UGA are working on this grant, including Kyle Johnsen, associate professor of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; Michael Schmidt, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology in the College of Education; Stephen Rathbun, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in College of Public Health; Leann Birch, the William P. “Bill” Flatt Childhood Obesity Professor in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences; and Margaret O’Brien Caughy, the Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Family Health Disparities in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn named Early Career Scholar

Sun Joo “Grace” Ahn, assistant professor of advertising and founding director of Grady’s Games and Virtual Environments Lab, was named the recipient of the Charles B. Knapp Early Career Scholar Award in Social and Behavioral Sciences. She accepted the award during an April 20, 2017, University of Georgia Honors Week ceremony.

The award is named in honor of the University of Georgia’s 20th president and recognizes outstanding accomplishment and evidence of potential future success in scholarship, creative work or research by an early career faculty member in the social and behavioral sciences.

Ahn is a prolific researcher in the fields of virtual reality, augmented reality and how immersive virtual environments influence user attitude and behavior. Much of Ahn’s research focuses on the technology of persuasive messages in health applications and seeing how to make them personally relevant to the subjects, frequently tapping the disciplines of communication, psychology, computer science and public health.

Ahn also serves as a researcher for the Center for Health and Risk Communication.