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Lifebrain Monthly E-newsletter April 2020

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Using Virtual Reality in experimental psychology

The use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology has developed markedly in recent years. Virtual experiences that used to be the domain of science fiction writers are now available for consumers. The opportunities VR provide have been utilized by the video game industry, architects, therapists, surgeons, and many other professions. One of the areas where VR has great potential is scientific research.
When designing scientific experiments with human participants it is important that people behave as they would in real life. VR experiments offer a sense of realism under experimental control. In addition, we get access to data that would be difficult to obtain in a naturalistic experimental setting, with VR motion tracking and eye tracking built into some VR setups.

Therapeutic use of VR 
VR has been used in therapeutic research for a long time, for instance in the treatment of phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (Beidel et al., 2019; Morina, Ijntema, Meyerbröker, & Emmelkamp, 2015). More recent studies have also found a use for VR in pain management of patients with back injuries moving more flexibly while in VR, and burn victims feeling less pain during operations while immersed in a virtual environment (Beidel et al., 2019; Li et al., 2017).

VR as a research tool
VR makes it possible to design experiments that would otherwise be impossible. Some scientists have used VR to simulate being in another person's body, examining how behavior and attitudes changes when embodying virtual avatars of different sex, age or other features (Slater & Sanchez-Vives, 2014). VR also allows breaking the laws of physics, for instance having participants interact with virtual objects that rotate in four spatial dimensions, enabling studies of brain plasticity in relation to something that is fundamentally novel for everybody (Ambinder, Wang, Crowell, Francis, & Brinkmann, 2009; Miwa, Sakai, & Hashimoto, 2017).

In our research group, Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition (LCBC) at the University of Oslo, we are currently running a longitudinal cognitive training experiment, where we utilize VR to simulate large, seamless worlds. Participants navigate in virtual reality by pedaling on motion-tracked exercise bikes, where their movements in the real world are translated into movements in the virtual world. They bike in a virtual city, being tasked with navigating between city landmarks. As they return for repeated sessions over multiple weeks, they gradually learn the layout of the city. Being fully immersed in a life-sized virtual world where participants are free to look around, allows for a type of navigation that feels very close to real life. Scanning the brains of participants in an MR scanner before and after the training period, we assess if this cognitive training leads to plastic changes in the brain. In combination with an array of questionnaires, health data and cognitive and genetic tests this allows us to illuminate how different factors influence brain plasticity.

Research participants pedaling on bikes while wearing VR-glasses.

One potential drawback of using VR for research is cybersickness (VR-induced motion sickness). This seems to be caused by a discrepancy between visual and vestibular input. In other words, perceived movement in VR convinces the eyes that you are moving, but not the inner ear, which can make some people dizzy or nauseous (Davis, Nesbitt, & Nalivaiko, 2014). Luckily, most people habituate quickly, and with some adjustments such as blocking out peripheral vision during sudden movements, many people do not experience any discomfort. For experiments that do not need to induce virtual movement, cybersickness is a non-issue.

Modern VR has been available for a few years, but it is still early days and the technology is developing at a rapid pace. As VR continues to mature it is likely to become a more common tool in the experimental researcher's toolbox.

The referred studies

Ambinder, M. S., Wang, R. F., Crowell, J. A., Francis, G. K., & Brinkmann, P. (2009). Human four-dimensional spatial intuition in virtual reality. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 16(5), 818-823.

Beidel, D. C., Frueh, B. C., Neer, S. M., Bowers, C. A., Trachik, B., Uhde, T. W., & Grubaugh, A. (2019). Trauma management therapy with virtual-reality augmented exposure therapy for combat-related PTSD: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of anxiety disorders, 61, 64-74.

Davis, S., Nesbitt, K., & Nalivaiko, E. (2014). A systematic review of cybersickness. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2014 Conference on Interactive Entertainment.

Li, L., Yu, F., Shi, D., Shi, J., Tian, Z., Yang, J., . . . Jiang, Q. (2017). Application of virtual reality technology in clinical medicine. American journal of translational research, 9(9), 3867.

Miwa, T., Sakai, Y., & Hashimoto, S. (2017). Learning 4-D spatial representations through perceptual experience with hypercubes. IEEE Transactions on Cognitive and Developmental Systems, 10(2), 250-266.

Morina, N., Ijntema, H., Meyerbröker, K., & Emmelkamp, P. M. (2015). Can virtual reality exposure therapy gains be generalized to real-life? A meta-analysis of studies applying behavioral assessments. Behaviour research and therapy, 74, 18-24.

Slater, M., & Sanchez-Vives, M. V. (2014). Transcending the self in immersive virtual reality. Computer, 47(7), 24-30.

Source of newsletter

This newsletter was edited by Knut Øverbye, Postdoctoral research fellow at Centre for Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo.


Your comments are always valuable to us, so do not hesitate to contact us.

Center for Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition at the University of Oslo
Kristine B. Walhovd project coordinator
Mari R. Arnesen administrative coordinator
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This project has received funding from the European Union ’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 732592.
Copyright © 2020 Lifebrain Horizon2020 project, All rights reserved.

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