Researcher Mel Slater (a computer scientist who divides his time between ICREA in Barcelona and University College, London) and his stalwart band of cybernauts are currently studying people when immersed in virtual environments, hoping to gain insight into why we respond to fake stimuli as if it's real. In one experiment, test subjects enter a "virtual bar" in which patrons schmooze, booze, and do the Frug. At a point during the virtual carousing, a fire breaks out. "We have had people literally run out of the VR room, even though they know that what they are witnessing is not real," says Slater. "They take their cues from the other characters." Other studies include a recreation of the classic Milgram Experiment of the 1960s (where the subject is ordered to give an electric shock to a "student" when they answer a question incorrectly) and a phobia study that introduces subjects to virtual heights. The researchers hope to gain insight into how the brain functions, eventually creating more intense and realistic virtual experiences, with applications in healthcare, training, social research and entertainment. What's next? According to Slater, the group is currently developing a project that is designed to help shy men overcome their fear of women (at the very least, it'll help you meet that Second Life avatar of your dreams). If this is your kinda thing, check out the video after the break. [Warning: the first several seconds of the video are audio only.]