• Hi Everyone,
    Thanks for reading my blog and interacting with me over the course of the cMOOC UNIV 200 course based at VCU.  To read my final project on virtual reality, go here!
    Thank you!
    ASA

  • Hi Everyone,

    Thanks for reading my blog and interacting with me over the course of the cMOOC UNIV 200 course based at VCU.  To read my final project on virtual reality, go here!

    Thank you!

    ASA

  • In Fall 2013, I participated in the Virtual Interactive Worlds (VIW) class of VCU’s Kinetic Imaging department.  This introduction to virtual reality helped me to redefine my relationship with reality and nature, and to understand how we interact with media in our day-to-day lives.  Two notable projects I created were my first, which simulates blindness through echolocation, and my final, which exposes the player to a number of commonly phobic experiences.  Since then, I have interacted with a plethora of VR games and experiences that have added to my relationship with nature and technology.  As a result, I see virtual reality not as a medium for gaming and novelty entertainment, but as a means of reconnecting and empathizing with nature and our fellow human beings.


    Project Echo of Death: Empathy in Virtual Reality
    Inspired by the concept of echolocation and my relationship with blindness via my twin and grandfather, I created my first project with virtual reality, named Project Echo of Death.  This game starts by placing the player in the center of a dark maze with only their voice as a means of navigating the space effectively.  As a well-sighted individual, I recognize that I can never truly understand what it means to be blind or the hardships associated with those impairments, and so creating this experience helped me to recognize how we take vision for granted.  More importantly, this project set a precedent for my relationship with virtual reality by associating the ideas of experience and empathy with the capabilities of the VR medium.  It prompted me to think of many ways that the technology could be used to recreate experiences imperceptible by humans naturally.  For example, octopuses see more than 300 degrees with each eye and flies have compound eyes capable of creating many images- each of these is hard to think about at a human, but could be simulated with virtual reality (artistic licenses permitting).  However, Project Echo of Death may not be a true virtual reality depending on how you define the term, since you play it on a normal computer screen using a simple keyboard, mouse, and microphone.  So, what then is virtual reality?


    Defining Virtual Reality
    Virtual reality is challenging to define, as the companies producing the VR technology have been the chief definers since its conception.  For example, Google defines it as: “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.”  This misinforms people about what virtual reality is by focusing in on the technological attributes of the medium as opposed to the effect sought.  In a paper by Jonathan Steuer to combat this conflict, he defines virtual reality as “a real or simulated environment in which a perceiver experiences telepresence”.  Unlike the majority of definitions for virtual reality, this one excludes the discussion of technology, thereby encompassing more types of relevant experiences which may not include head-mounted displays, haptic sensors (for touch), or other immersive elements.  Take for example the case of photographs and paintings containing snapshots in time of a real or imagined place.  You can experience the elements encompassed by the image, as well as make the choice to imagine being there.  In fact, many travel commercials show people looking at postcards and then zoom in, as if the viewer teleports into the postcard landscape.  By this definition, virtual realities can be recognized all around us, whether weak or immersive.  By Steuer’s definition though, my interactive simulation of blindness is then included into the discussion of virtual reality.


    Research in Empathy and Identity
    The research in virtual reality today is nothing short of amazing.  I was fascinated to learn about several studies and projects using VR that make you question your own identity, whether racial, sexual, or even as a human.  One such (multiple part) research project from Univ. de Barcelona had “[t]hirty six Caucasian people participate in a between-groups experiment where they played a West-African Djembe hand drum while immersed in IVR and with a virtual body that substituted their own.”  Some participants saw a light-skinned body, others a dark-skinned or purple-skinned body, and some none.  From results of an Implicit Association Test on racial bias given before and after the experiment, Mel Slater writes on his bl0g that “the IAT score declined only for those who had been in the dark skinned body”, indicating that “[p]utting yourself in the skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias“.
    Reminding me of a demo I played on the VR device Oculus Rift where the main character is a woman, there is another ongoing research project at the BeAnotherLab, where their main research concept is “If I were you, would I better understand myself?”.  With cameras mounted to the face of Oculus Rift devices, participants of differing ages, sexes, race, and physical ability simultaneously see from the perspective of the other (watch the video for a look into the wonderful work they are doing!).  The next steps in this project are to measure how these experience affects ones empathy for the other group.  What would it be like to be the opposite gender?  Or to be handicapped?  Old?  These are just the beginning of the questions they are asking and exploring with virtual reality research.
    At Stanford University, they are asking a different question: does taking the place of an animal affect empathy?  In a Q&A for The Splendid Table, Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab describes the project where participants experience being a cow for several minutes, including being prodded by a stick and being told they were going to a slaughterhouse at the end.  In response to an interview question about subject reactions, he writes that:

    Subjects were fairly affected by this; nobody was traumatized, nobody was depressed, everybody was fine. But the emotions that they had were fairly predictable in terms of empathy.
    I have some quotes from people who were in the study: “I truly felt like I was going to the slaughterhouse toward the end, and felt sad that as a cow I was going to die. That last prod felt really sad.”
    Here’s another one: “I thought it was interesting and I did gain a level of empathy for the cow. I was caught off-guard by my body’s reaction to the cattle prod. I did not expect to react as if it actually had an electric current.”


    Listen to the audio interview here: After Becoming A Cow

    Since reading Siddhartha in high school and then Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep in college, I have been interested in experiences where you imagine (or see) yourself in place of other people and animals, leading to a great interest in this kind of research and on empathy.  Another Stanford study even suggests that virtual reality superpowers can increase real-world empathy!  However, virtual reality provides a sandbox for many other types of research and experiences, such as in exposure therapy – defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “psychotherapy that involves repeated real, visualized, or simulated exposure to or confrontation with a feared situation or object or a traumatic event or memory in order to achieve habituation and that is used especially in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, or phobias “.


    The Uncomfortable Box: How Virtual Reality Impacts Exposure Therapy
    Midway through the VIW course, I was enthralled by the capabilities of virtual reality and so I decided to take the next step – I purchased an Oculus Rift Development Kit in hopes of getting to use it for the course.  It arrived in November 2013 and I set out with my project team to create a very uncomfortable game.  Our brainstorming sessions conceived of a nightmarish sequence of events to challenge the player’s emotions and fears.  With the player inside of a small box in the real world and armed with the Oculus Rift, the player would encounter shrinking rooms, being buried, falling from the sky, close proximity with snakes, spiders, and centipedes, and perhaps even drown or get hit by a train – we imagined nothing short of a nightmare to experience awake.  There were numerous complications throughout The Uncomfortable Box project, and we only created a subset of our original ideas, but the resulting product serves as a demo to our intended goal.  Like the first, this project opened a door to a lot of new ideas for virtual reality, especially focused around exposure therapy and investigating the fears and joys of humans and animals alike.

    Unlike The Uncomfortable Box project which was merely an artistic exploration of fear, virtual reality serves as a tool quite effective for helping people overcome their fears.  According to a 2005 article from the American Psychological Association, “[c]linicians have used cognitive-behavioral therapy to treat phobias since the 1950s” and in 1995, the first paper was published describing the efficacy of virtual reality technology in helping “patients overcome acrophobia, or the fear of heights”.  The companies Virtually Better and Previsl both sell commercial software & hardware to psychologists in many countries to assist in treating numerous phobias, and for good reason.

    According to the same article, many phobic people perceive the 3D models and simulations as ‘real enough’, thus VR can elicit the fear response necessary for exposure therapy, which strives to re-associate those stimuli with positive action and thought.  Some advantages of virtual reality in this type of therapy are:

    Control – clinicians may carefully regulate the exposure in a session based on patient response.
    Convenience – many fears would be challenging or expensive to set up/recreate for each session, such as airplane flights.
    Confidentiality – VR sessions promote the privacy of patients by enabling them to receive exposure in an office setting, away from people who may know them.
    Persuasion – VR treatments are not the real stimuli, so patients are more likely to agree to it.

    In an article published June 2014 entitled “A Randomized, Double-Blind Evaluation of d-Cycloserine or Alprazolam Combined With Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans”, they describe a VR treatment model including auditory, visual, olfactory, and tactile stimuli to be used while the subject pilots an individual or a Humvee in a simulated environment to Iraq or Afghanistan.  The results suggest that “virtual reality exposure therapy attenuated cortisol and startle responses to a trauma-relevant scene.”

    A primary goal of virtual reality research today is achieving presence.  In the APA article discussing virtual reality exposure therapy, psychologist Brenda Wiederhold, PhD, is quoted as saying “We’re always looking at how we can improve presence…[s]ome studies have shown that thousands of dollars worth of better graphics don’t help, but things like a $10 fan blowing on your face do.”  Psychologists are not the only group interested in presence though – just about all sides of the virtual reality universe seek better immersion and interactivity with virtual environments.  The Virtuix Omni is a recent introduction to the virtual reality toolkit that solves a major problem for all games to do with walking or moving a lot.  It is one of a few types of omnidirectional treadmills, effectively allowing the player to walk in any direction while staying stationary.  Researchers have also used speakers surrounding a room to recreate the spatial and directional traits of sound, adding to the perceived sense of presence within an environment.  Ultimately, a lot of research is being conducted with virtual reality to try and recreate some of the most intricate and necessary aspects of reality as we know it, so that we can create new realities that feel just as real.


    Virtual Reality, Meditation, and Nature
    Soon after acquiring the Oculus Rift, I found myself downloading as many free demos and games as I could;  excited to find out what sorts of things people were creating.  Three that have stuck with me since the beginning are SoundSelf, Waking Man, and Eden River.  Unlike the action packed games many people gravitate to, I prefer simple, thought-provoking activities, like those provided by these games.  And in interacting with games like these, I have been able to expand my inner world beyond the normal day-to-day limitations of consciousness.  Each provides a different type of environment to interact with, but manages to be profound in practice.  The first, SoundSelf, is a fractal generator that uses your own voice to create seemingly complex (yet mathematically simple) graphics.  Wearing headphones while you ‘play’ with it, you hear alongside your own sounds a constant low tone, meant to guide you to make similar repeated tones and frequencies.  Each experience with SoundSelf has been meditative and reflective, as the endless fractal tunnel that appears generates the feeling of blissful isolation.  Where other virtual realities try to achieve presence through more interaction and better graphics to describe real objects, this puts you at the center of your own voice and leaves out extraneous features which destroy the illusion, such as having to use a keyboard or mouse.

    Waking Man, like SoundSelf, is a meditative experience in all ways – from the calm, open environment to the cross-legged avatar at the base of the player’s position in space.  Inside the game, you find yourself on a tiny island, able to look anywhere, but not move.  In front of you is an endless sunset with warm colored cloud apparitions moving across the sky, and as a player in Waking Man, all there is to do is sit, watch, and make echoes with your voice.  While your voice doesn’t directly impact the scene, it adds the sense of depth and vast enclosure apparent in SoundSelf (and actual places that carry echoes).  I often find myself zoning out from the visual aspects of this chamber of solitude, and becoming entranced by the echoes produced by my voice.  The ability of VR to be used for meditative environments is endless, and to me, it is the most immersive experience you can have by virtue of the natural disconnect from reality which occurs at times of meditation.

    Finally, there is Eden River – most unlike the other two and yet similarly enchanting.  The concept is simple: Steering with the roll of your head, you float along a river, occasionally picking up bright flowers hovering on the water’s surface.  While the game itself is simple, the detail and clarity of this virtual forest-river is astonishing and unforgettable.  Every so often, you realize that you haven’t been looking for the next pink flower because you’ve been focusing elsewhere, at the clear reflections on the water or on the trees above, before realizing that less time has passed than you previously thought.  I have never felt anything less than happier and more relaxed from playing this game.  In a sense, its name is perfect for it, as it is a virtual utopia of simple elegance.  When I have been unable to go to Belle Isle or other outdoors activities for an extended time, floating down Eden River has served as a reminder of where I need to be.


    Closing Remarks
    It may only be just under a year since my introduction to the realm of virtual reality, but my unbridled relationship with it as a programmer and developer has given me a lot of moments to brainstorm, test,  and reflect on its uses and strengths.  In my own work, I designed worlds and experiences unique to virtual reality that strive to connect the player with other people and with themselves.  And while my projects were in the context of an art class, the thoughtfulness onset by the course led me to my interest in how virtual reality can be used for higher purposes than playing video games.  On top of that, I see virtual reality as one technology in an increasingly tech-reliant society that can actually help us to circle back and reconnect with our roots, a rare perspective among nature-lovers.  Irregardless, the future of virtual reality is yet to come and the only driving force in where it goes is people, so what would you like to see?

  • hey, I did the same thing! My new one is going much better but I have a ways to go. I think my summary is probably inaccurate now as I’ve heightened the focus .

  • hey, I did the same thing! My new one is going much better but I have a ways to go. I think my summary is probably inaccurate now as I’ve heightened the focus .

  • Ulysses for Oculus Rift! http://bit.ly/1rPfrrY How’s that for immersive storytelling?

  • Ulysses for Oculus Rift! http://bit.ly/1rPfrrY How’s that for immersive storytelling?

  • In reflecting further on my topic and writing my rough draft of the IBP, I have decided that the key point of my project that I had been unsure of until now, is how Virtual Reality as a medium of communication is […]

  • In reflecting further on my topic and writing my rough draft of the IBP, I have decided that the key point of my project that I had been unsure of until now, is how Virtual Reality as a medium of communication is […]

  • Many people misunderstand Virtual Reality as being solely for gaming, and I seek to dispel that myth while providing examples of actual and possible applications in other industries and research.   Also, I see innovation where different disciplines work together, and set to inspire and promote the idea of anybody participating in Virtual Reality research.  I will likely discuss with brevity a few types of virtual reality devices, such as head-mounted displays and  omnidirectional treadmills.  I’ll also discuss the terms briefly, such as virtual versus augmented reality.  This project will be inlude my personal experience with VR, and my observations on how it can be used or adapted.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/science/article/pii/S0003999312010787
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3986528/
    http://dl.acm.org.proxy.library.vcu.edu/citation.cfm?id=1897847&bnc=1
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1992.tb00810.x/abstract
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22954874
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00594110#page-1
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1422600/

  • Many people misunderstand Virtual Reality as being solely for gaming, and I seek to dispel that myth while providing examples of actual and possible applications in other industries and research.   Also, I see innovation where different disciplines work together, and set to inspire and promote the idea of anybody participating in Virtual Reality research.  I will likely discuss with brevity a few types of virtual reality devices, such as head-mounted displays and  omnidirectional treadmills.  I’ll also discuss the terms briefly, such as virtual versus augmented reality.  This project will be inlude my personal experience with VR, and my observations on how it can be used or adapted.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/science/article/pii/S0003999312010787
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3986528/
    http://dl.acm.org.proxy.library.vcu.edu/citation.cfm?id=1897847&bnc=1
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1992.tb00810.x/abstract
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22954874
    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00594110#page-1
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1422600/

  • collinsag posted a new activity comment 6 years, 9 months ago

    Thank you! I appreciate the complement

  • As Dr. C commented on the original post, then the message is received! Thank you!

  • collinsag posted a new activity comment 6 years, 9 months ago

    As Dr. C commented on the original post, then the message is received! Thank you!

  • Thank you. I think a lot of people have trouble starting things some times, but I was reminded recently that if you wait until you are ready to make something, that may take a long time, while starting before you […]

  • collinsag posted a new activity comment 6 years, 9 months ago

    Thank you. I think a lot of people have trouble starting things some times, but I was reminded recently that if you wait until you are ready to make something, that may take a long time, while starting before you think you are ready can make you become ready. Thanks for reading!

  • At the onset of this week, I wrote a post about my goals for the week, and about my IBP.  In comparison to the last two weeks, I feel like I was much better able to balance my work and focus enough to write […]

  • At the onset of this week, I wrote a post about my goals for the week, and about my IBP.  In comparison to the last two weeks, I feel like I was much better able to balance my work and focus enough to write regularly.  This is a very good step, I feel, which will help me moving forward to work on the IBP as much as I need to.  In addition, this week also prompted me to be happier overall much more then what has been normal, which I also think will help moving forward.  I am quite satisfied with my posts this week and I hope to keep that feeling.

    In regards to the IBP, that has still been a challenge to work on alongside my fellowship project (have you heard of the Bioenergetics project? Check it out!).  I am in the process of developing a whole new website for the project and it has been a larger undertaking than anticipated.  Nontheless, I am exploring the idea of creating a 3D environment in which my IBP’s content will be explorable like a private museum.  I will post more this weekend.  Have a good one!

  • great work so far. I read that whole case study about the girl who came up with the idea of a proof independent of being taught. Fascinating!

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