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Virtual Healing

Researchers at the University of Barcelona have found virtual reality to be a useful tool in psychology


Virtual reality may be the buzzword in journalism and entertainment. But for a team of psychologists and computer scientists at the University of Barcelona, these are just new applications for tools that they have been researching on for some time.

The Experimental Virtual Environments Lab (EVENT Lab) at the Department of Psychobiology of the University of Barcelona focuses on immersive and embodiment experiences. Researchers from the University of Barcelona, the University College London and the University of Derby help participants learn through compassion.

An avatar of Lenin moves according to the participant's movement.

They use avatars and computer science gaming technology to teach empathy. For example, a user can be embodied in a black avatar to experience racial discrimination, or an adult in the body of a child to empathise how it feels when parents are harsh.

Event Lab uses this robot for remote control embodiment. Researchers are thinking about how the technology can be applied in real life.

"We found that adults who experience the kind mother gain trust," Mel Slater, the director of EVENTS Lab explained, "but when they meet the harsh mother first followed by the kind one a week later, they tend not to trust her."

To experience embodiment, the participant has to put on a black bodysuit. Sensor pompoms on the garment allow the computer to track the person's movement so that the programme can react accordingly. The signals are picked up by sensors mounted on the walls of the pitch black lab. A virtual reality headset then allows the user to immerse in the altered world.

The participant puts on a bodysuit dotted with sensors to track his movements.
The bodysuit is attached with sensors, which helps with detecting participant's movement.

"Parents who go through the experience tend to become more empathetic toward their children afterwards," said Domna Banakou, a researcher at the lab.

"Racial discrimination also tends to decrease after white people experience what it is like to be black," added Banakou.

These virtual reality experiments have taken Mel Slater and his team more than 15 years. "When we started, it used to take us three to six months to build one programme," professor Slater said, "but now, we can come up with a basic one in a matter of weeks."

Mel Slater is the director of The Experimental Virtual Environments Lab (EVENT Lab) at the Department of Psychobiology of the University of Barcelona.

For the adult in the body of a child experiment, the surveys though take much longer, in some cases, a lot of money in the millions of euros. "We estimate it will take at least five more years," Bankaou said.

Virtual reality as a tool has been used in architecture, sport, medicine, art, and entertainment. But its use in psychology, the EVENT Lab has found, has been one of the most successful applications.

In journalism, EVENT Lab worked with the BBC on the centenary of the Russian Revolution to reenact Lenin's speech to Red Army recruits in Sverdlov Square in Moscow in 1920. The avatar uses an audio recording of Lenin's voice. Users can choose to be in the crowd or be embodied as Lenin to experience the revolutionary spirit at the time.

An imperfection, Professor Slater admitted, is the wooden and rather flat appearance of the graphics.

Motion sickness is also sometimes a problem. "The position of where the viewer is looking from must stay still," he explained. Six degrees of freedom, Slate stressed, is vital in a decent virtual reality experience. That means users must be able to move and look around the VR environment totally freely rather than just in three planes. "And if I put the headset on and experience even a split moment of motion sickness, I would take it off immediately because that feeling tends to stay with you the rest of the day."

On the day of the visit, a user enjoyed most of the experiences, but developed motion sickness with a programme in which he simply had to watch a quartet at a park. "I think I spun my head around too much and tried to approach the musicians," he said.

Researchers at EVENT lab are now working on how to make the graphics more realistic and the movements of the avatars more fluid. In one case, the avatar appeared to have a broken arm when the sensors on the bodysuit didn't quite catch up.

About five years ago, Professor Slater experimented with remote control embodiment. Nony de la Pena, a VR journalism research at the University of Southern California, embodied in a robot in Barcelona via a computer programme. Through the robot, she interacted with researchers in Spain.

"There was a slight delay in the interaction," professor Slater admitted. But it allowed the researchers to consider how the technology may be applied to remote clinical consultations. The remote embodiment is not quite the focus of professor Slater's works. He is more into immersive experiences. He has yet to see much application of augmented reality, such as Microsoft's Hololens, either. "It is not immersive and not particularly realistic," he thought.

But what about remote embodiment via a hologram? "That would be cool," he said.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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