I’m Virtually Falling for this Research

UCT lab manager, Calvyn du Toit, wearing a virtual reality headset in a psychology department research facility. Photo: Diaan Mynhardt

My eyes open and I find myself standing atop an impossibly high pedestal, located in the middle of a large, brightly-lit industrial-looking room. The walls and distant floor are a deep matt black, and crisscrossed by a bright yellow grid. There’s no way down. From somewhere a disembodied voice gives a mischievous-sounding chuckle, then says, “I’m sorry, Diaan.” A sudden shove from behind unbalances me, and I fall. The floor rushes towards me, faster and faster, and my body reacts; my muscles tense as I feel the weightlessness of freefall. Adrenalin surges! I hit the bottom and my vision turns red. There’s no pain.

My heart is thumping, and I hear that voice as it laughs again. It’s the voice of Calvyn du Toit, lab manager for the Department of Psychology[1] at the University of Cape Town. We’re in a soundproof whisper room, the core of a high-tech virtual reality research facility operated by the department. My head is wrapped in the electronic embrace of a brand new Occulus Rift[2] virtual reality headset, and I’ve just been on the receiving end of a demonstration of exactly how real virtual reality can feel.

Breathing, heart rate, and more are constantly monitored.

Calvyn and I are here to talk about this state of the art facility, now in its final phase of construction, and the work the university intends to do here. Primarily a research facility, the discoveries made in this room are likely to influence the future of virtual reality in South Africa, both as a tool for cutting-edge research, and as an instrument with therapeutic applications.

I spoke to Calvyn du Toit from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cape Town about the high-tech virtual reality research lab currently being built there. Listen to us in the first-ever Feeback/Forward podcast, linked above. Credit: Free sound samples courtesy of Jobro.

Situations that are too dangerous to attempt in the real world.

What sets a facility like the one at the University of Cape Town apart from an everyday virtual reality gaming setup is its use of cutting-edge wireless monitoring equipment. Numerous receivers, signal processors, and a powerful computer line one wall. These ultra-modern machines[3] allow a research subjects to slip into a futuristic, sensor-studded, skin-tight suit that tracks every detail of the wearer’s vital signs. Breathing, heart rate, skin conductance and more are constantly monitored and scrutinised – all while allowing the research subject a full range of unimpeded movements.

A row of high-tech Biopac signal receivers and processors in the UCT virtual reality research lab. A participant’s vital signs are transmitted to the researcher in real-time. Photo: Diaan Mynhardt

When combined with the latest virtual reality software[4], and capped off with the revolutionary Occulus Rift headset, this as yet unnamed facility will allow researchers to place subjects in any environment imaginable. Here they will be able to experience situations that are either too difficult, dangerous, or expensive to attempt in the real world.

An extraordinary useful tool for the betterment of humanity.

The work Calvyn and his colleagues here at the University of Cape Town are doing is not unique. Some of the world’s top universities have already established similar research units. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab[5] has attempted to answer questions as diverse as whether swapping a person’s left and right hands can change their perceptions of good and bad (it can’t), or whether interacting with an older virtual version of oneself can teach improved financial planning skills (it can).

The inside of an Occulus Rift virtual reality headset. The latest virtual reality technology has made this kind of research increasingly accessible. Photo: Diaan Mynhardt

While research topics such as these might seem trivial or even frivolous at times, virtual reality has the potential to be an extraordinary tool for the betterment of humanity. Fields of study that require participants to report on potential behaviour in hypothetical situations no longer need to rely on the self-reports of test subjects. Instead, researchers are now able to objectively observe and measure responses in virtual situations.

Exposure therapy can be difficult and dangerous to implement.

One field where the technology has met with formidable success is in the study of serious conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as other related anxiety disorders. The combination of visual, auditory, tactile, and sometimes even olfactory feedback – made possible by the kinds of state of the art virtual reality setups seen at universities – significantly increases a user’s sense of immersion in a virtual environment. This enhanced level of realism is of paramount importance to the field of exposure therapy[6], a kind of therapy often used to treat anxiety disorders such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, where a patient or research subject is gradually acclimatised to anxiety-inducing stimuli.

A facility of this calibre requires a professionally constructed soundproof enclosure to prevent outside noise from interfering with research subjects. Photo: Diaan Mynhardt

Exposure therapy can be difficult and dangerous to implement, but with virtual reality a researcher is not only able to create safe, effective environments, but to tune every aspect of the virtual reality with scientific precision. By manipulating each sense individually, researchers gain a nuanced understanding of the ways in which each sense influences the expression of anxiety in a patient. This unprecedented level of control allows for a much-improved understanding of these conditions, and provides better than ever roadmaps for future treatments.

With this facility, the University of Cape Town continues a long history of excellence in research innovation. Calvyn du Toit and his colleagues are set to improve the lives of many through the research they will conduct here. For my part, I’m certain of one thing; I won’t be caught standing on top of any high objects while Calvyn is around. Not again.

Department of Psychology. University of Cape Town. http://www.psychology.uct.ac.za/ (accessed 17 Jun2017).
Rift. Occulus. https://www.oculus.com/rift/ (accessed 17 Jun2017).
WorldViz Vizard. WorldViz. http://www.worldviz.com/virtual-reality-industries-academic-research/ (accessed 17 Jun2017).
Virtual Human Interaction Lab. Stanford University. https://vhil.stanford.edu/ (accessed 17 Jun2017).
Exposure Therapy. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exposure_therapy (accessed 17 Jun2017).

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