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Published on August 18th, 2016 | from CAMH

Real-world research in virtual reality

By Jennifer La Grassa, Placement Student in the Complex Mental Illness Program, Schizophrenia Division

I go to work to escape reality. I bet you don’t hear that too often.

In late March of this year, I came into contact with clinician-scientist Dr. George Foussias who heads the Virtual Reality (VR) and Behavioural Neuroscience lab at the CAMH College Street location. We connected over our shared interest in schizophrenia and his goal to improve the negative symptoms of the disorder.

Medical science divides the symptoms of schizophrenia into what it calls positive and negative categories. Positive symptoms, also known as psychosis, are sensory hallucinations and delusions that disconnect the individual from reality. Negative symptoms affect the individual’s level of functioning by causing poor social skills, reduced physical movement, reduced emotional expression, and motivational deficits.

Without the motivation to go to work, school, or to even maintain a social life, many people with schizophrenia find themselves unable to function at an optimal level. Dr. Foussias’ research uses VR tasks to assess people’s real-world motivation; analyzing this data allows him to develop strategies that will improve the person’s current motivational state.

Being a fourth year psychology and neuroscience student at McMaster University, I was relieved when Dr. Foussias assured me that I wouldn’t be in charge of creating any of the virtual reality tasks, considering my minimal knowledge in programming. Rather, Dr. Foussias thought I would be better suited to assist both the development and implementation of their mobile application, and enhance the personality of their virtual characters.

For the majority of my time at CAMH, my role has been to work alongside Kent, a computer science co-op student who is programming the mobile app. The app functions as a calendar, encouraging individuals to plan out their days and weeks well in advance. The distinguishing feature of this app is that it works with real-world GPS location to motivate users to complete appointments and events they have scheduled. Through this, feedback is provided to the individual around completed and missed appointments, and rewards the individual accordingly. Together, Kent and I have worked on perfecting the app layout, design, functionality, and user experience. The app is currently undergoing usability testing and is on its way to being used by participants.

The other project that I’ve been able to work on with a Ph.D. student named Ishraq is the virtual human social interaction task.  I’ve assisted in what Dr. Foussias likes to call the “personality infusion” of the virtual characters that participants will be able to converse with. I’ve been inputting character responses to questions regarding its likes, dislikes, and general thoughts on a number of topics. For example, if asked what the meaning of life is, our virtual male character Brad, will respond with “Isn’t it obvious? Nutella is the meaning of life”.

Brad and his female counterpart Rachel were developed at the University of Southern California (USC) and are able to engage in realistic conversation on a variety of topics by tracking the verbal and non-verbal behavior of their co-conversationalist. The assessment of these conversations will allow Dr. Foussias and Ishraq to analyze how well VR assessments fare in comparison to performing live clinical assessments, while also allowing them to take note of each participant’s social skills.

Personally, I think the most exciting project in the VR lab is the creation of the virtual tasks that my colleague Simon has been working on. Within my first week on the job, I got a taste of the virtual life and it was pretty awesome. The head mounted display– an Oculus Rift – is used to visually create the perception of a 3D environment. The Rift is an adjustable black headpiece that surrounds the eyes, with earphones providing audio. It separates me from my office view of the CN Tower and transports me into the virtual town that Simon has created.

The Rift will enable Dr. Foussias to immerse participants in real-world environments and assess their level of motivation by having them complete a number of everyday tasks. This task list may consist of attending a Doctor’s appointment on time, dropping off a letter at the post office, or withdrawing money from the bank to later purchase groceries. Participants must use a handheld controller to navigate, which allows them to actively engage with their surroundings. The running joke (and future dream) is that the lab will someday own an omni-directional treadmill. Participants would then be able to feel as though they are physically exploring their surroundings by foot, creating a more realistic experience. Once that happens, I’ll be sure to convince Dr. Foussias that a fan and sprinkler might be useful to mimic different weather conditions for participants!

The research that Dr. Foussias and his team (those not included are research analysts Sarah and Jessica, and Master’s student Susana) are currently working on is very exciting and unique. Mobile and virtual technology have many uses within the medical world and their potential is just beginning to be explored. I’m excited to see more of the work that the VR lab will produce.

The experience I’ve gained this summer was made enjoyable by both the projects I was involved in and the people that I got to work with. Dr. Foussias gave me an opportunity that not many undergraduate students are lucky enough to receive, and for that I am extremely grateful. Aside from mainly working with technology, I did manage to get some (real) human interaction as well; I sat in on clinical assessments and was trained to perform the BACS (Brief Assessment of Cognition in Schizophrenia) on participants.

Being able to gain hands-on experience in the field that I am currently studying has made me even more excited about my program and the future work I’ll be able to pursue – in the real world, of course.

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