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How Bath virtual reality research is opening doors: Ben explores VR at Bath

Recent psychology graduate, Ben Cachin, reflects on Virtual Reality research at Bath by speaking to researchers leading the way in this area.

A person (Ben Cachin) stood outside of a building (10 West, University of Bath).
While studying at Bath, Ben discovered his passion for virtual reality (VR) research.

What does Virtual Reality (VR) mean to you? Listen to the news, and on a regular basis, you’ll hear headlines about the latest VR product being rolled out and how VR is set to revolutionise all our lives. Here at Bath, we are leading the way with some of these VR innovations - from new ways to combat pain or even prevent sexual harassment.

As I reflect back on my time at Bath, VR stands out as the most unexpectedly pivotal part of my BSc (Hons) Psychology degree. It has opened doors that I didn't know existed and has set me on a path very different to the one I imagined when I first applied to study here.

For my dissertation, I investigated how the visual part of the virtual environment affects how present people feel in that world. This research enabled me to explore the wealth of VR research taking place around the world, including right here on our campus.

Having now graduated, I want to highlight a small selection of that research so that more people can be aware of how our VR research is making a difference and having an impact.

Working with Meta (Dr Michael Proulx)

When thinking of cutting-edge VR research, many imagine improvements in the technical hardware, such as higher-quality displays or lighter headsets. However, recent research from Bath suggests that the next frontier of VR development might actually be psychological. VR is not just the technology but also how we interact with it, how we experience it, and how it makes us feel.

The goal of VR is to transport you to a virtual world and have you feel like you are truly there, but of course, this also requires some imagination. ‘Imaginative suggestibility’ is how well you are able to experience an imaginary scenario as if it were real. Researchers at Bath, including psychologist Dr Michael Proulx — co-director of REVEAL (the research centre for Immersive Technology at the University of Bath) — have found that imaginative suggestibility can have significant and remarkable effects on how present you feel in the virtual world.

One explanation for this is that people with high imaginative suggestibility are able to use their imagination to expand upon the existing visuals. Alternatively, they may be able to use their imagination to ignore glitches in the technology which bring others out of the experience.

These findings indicate that psychology plays a significant role in how users experience VR. What users perceive as realistic is not simply a result of the technology but also heavily influenced by how each individual processes the virtual world.

Dr Proulx has significant experience researching perception using technology such as VR and eye tracking at Bath. It was through this research that I first got exposed to VR research and how it can be used in psychology.

I was clearly not the only one to be inspired, as when Meta’s hardware team felt like they were missing someone who could understand the human factors of interacting with VR, it was Michael they hired. Alongside his role as a research scientist at Meta in Redmond, Washington, Michael remains involved with the numerous VR research projects at Bath.

"My VR work at Meta and Bath has allowed me to explore such a diversity of different topics from eye tracking to office design. Being able to apply some of this research in order to help guide VR developments at one of the world’s largest software and technology companies is a really unique and rewarding experience.

"The set-up at Bath, primarily through our state-of-the-art VR labs, but also through collaboration with close colleagues in Computer Science and CAMERA, is really helping to enable a lot of these research innovations to take place.” - Dr Michael Proulx.

‘To work in VR is to work on the cutting edge of psychology research, which means you can never quite be sure where you will end up’
Ben Cachin BSc (Hons) Psychology graduate

VR and pain (Caitlin Naylor)

While Michael’s job has focused on using perception to improve VR, Bath Psychology PhD student Caitlin Naylor, who is supervised by REVEAL co-director Dr Christof Lutteroth, has been using the unique abilities of VR to investigate how perception works and how to rehabilitate people when it doesn’t.

VR allows for a unique investigation of the ‘Material-Weight Illusion’ - an illusion wherein if two objects are of the same weight but one looks as if it should be lighter (e.g. polystyrene versus granite), when lifted, the lighter-looking object feels heavier despite both having the same weight. Caitlin tested participants in a mixed-reality experiment using VR to manipulate their visual perceptions of physical cubes.

Unlike previous experiments, for the first time ever, thanks to VR, both tactile and visual cues could be investigated and manipulated together in a multisensory environment - i.e. touch and sight. Her research has highlighted how the material feel of the blocks is more important in forming the illusion than what the blocks looked like.

Caitlin’s current research is using VR to begin the development of a rehabilitation program for individuals with disordered body representation. By manipulating the user's virtual hand in VR, this program could potentially be used to develop more personalised and effective treatment for individuals living with the rare but debilitating Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CPRS).

VR allows for quick and easy modifications to the treatment, allowing it to be personalised for each patient. This will allow for more targeted and effective treatments.

"Plenty of research has shown us that personalised medical treatment is the gold standard, but with current resources, it is often unachievable. VR presents a tantalising opportunity to make personalised treatment more accessible." - Caitlin Naylor

From VR to VIPs

VR research is not only being conducted by academics at Bath. Currently, a team of students, through one of the University’s innovative Vertically Integrated Projects (VIPs), is developing a VR bystander training program to combat sexual harassment with the help of AI.

The VIP, ‘creating immersive training experiences in virtual reality,’ consists of an interdisciplinary team of students across all years who work together with an academic to develop a real-world project that can solve pressing issues.

Via the training tool we are developing, people can practice intervening when they are a bystander to simulated sexual harassment. Through the use of AI, trainees will be able to respond and interact with the VR training through natural speech. It’s all about equipping people with the skills and confidence to take a stand.

One of the unique strengths of VR that makes it perfect for training such as this, is that it allows people to safely experience what would otherwise be a potentially dangerous environment. This training program will allow people to practice noticing and confronting sexual harassment without the fear of failure, an experience difficult to achieve outside of VR.

The team has worked with the local charity SARSAS (Somerset & Avon Rape & Sexual Abuse Support) as well as the University EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) team to ensure that the environment is not only useful but practical for these groups to use after completion. The project’s long-term goal is for the training to be used and based in Bath before being rolled out to any university with readily available VR headsets.

This project has benefited greatly from the in-house resources and expertise located in Bath. The wealth of academics experienced in using VR and their willingness to give guidance and advice have helped to ensure that the findings and the system developed are robust and effective.

"Leading the VIP project has been a fantastic opportunity to meet people from all sorts of degrees and work together to tackle real-world issues. It’s been great bonding as a team and getting to do things like directing a team of actors in the University’s state-of-the-art motion capture studio CAMERA.” - Jian Xin Lim (a member of the 'creating immersive training experiences in virtual reality' VIP team)

In summary...

Bath has a vibrant and exciting diversity of VR projects that allow researchers and students from all disciplines to pursue novel research and discover new methods of working.

I have treasured the opportunities to work across disciplines and discover a whole side of psychology I was completely unaware of. Working in VR is to work on the cutting edge of psychology research, which means you can never quite be sure where you will end up. I pursued VR out of my passion for environmental psychology, Michael and Caitlin did so out of their passion for perceptual psychology, and the students working on the VIP pursued VR to tackle a pressing societal challenge.

No matter what passion brings you to use VR at Bath, you’ll find that with the dedicated VR labs, equipped with any sensor or device you could need, and academics who are working at the cutting edge of VR research, the possibilities are endless

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