Conducting Virtual Reality Research

Equipment to support interactive and virtual studies is now available to researchers.

<p>Marcy Boynton, a psychology Ph.D. student, models the virtual reality headset and glove in the Advanced Interactive Technology Center at CHIP. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli</p>
Marcy Boynton, a psychology Ph.D. student, models the virtual reality headset and glove in the Advanced Interactive Technology Center at CHIP. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

Virtual reality equipment is now available on a fee-for-service basis to any UConn researcher and to researchers from other institutions.

The equipment was originally purchased for a grant-funded research project headed by Kerry Marsh, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

With help from the Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), Marsh parlayed a $2 million federal grant to study sexual risk behavior in virtual reality environments into a resource for the entire University.

Marsh used virtual reality technology for the first time in a pilot project that was funded by CHIP. The pilot allowed her to better understand the technology and confirm that virtual reality scenarios would be realistic enough for her experiments.

After receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to pursue her research further, she hired industry expert Timothy Gifford and applied to CHIP for additional funding to create the Advanced Interactive Technology Center (AITC) at CHIP, with hardware, software, and personnel capabilities to produce and support interactive and virtual research.

Gifford, who worked for more than 15 years in private industry and led the team that installed the Smithsonian Institution’s first virtual reality exhibit, is now pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology at UConn and is director of the AITC.

Researchers can choose how they want to use the center: those already knowledgeable in virtual reality and other interactive technologies can access AITC equipment alone; those new to using interactive technologies can use AITC staff design services as well.

“Advanced interactive technologies, including virtual reality, enable researchers to place study participants in situations that would be cost-prohibitive, dangerous, or even impossible in the real world,” says Marsh, faculty member at the Greater Hartford campus and a principal investigator with CHIP. “Interactive graphics and virtual reality extend the reach of researchers in a cost-effective and repeatable way.”

Marsh’s team is using virtual reality to study individuals’ rapid, emotion-based reactions to condoms as opposed to their more deliberative attitudes about practicing safer sex, because the rapid reactions serve as better predictors of how individuals will act in an impulsive setting, such as a party, bar, or night club.

Self-reported surveys, role plays, and other traditional social science research tools help predict intentional behaviors, Marsh says, but they cannot capture study participants’ real-time responses in high-risk situations the same way virtual reality can.

With virtual reality technology, such as goggles and a head-mounted display, Marsh’s team can fully immerse participants in dating environments and scenarios they’ve created.

From remote computers, the researchers can control impulsive cues in the environment, such as the volume of music and presence of alcohol at a party, and manipulate avatars’ behavior to convey different motives for seeking intimacy. They also can alter environments in response to participants’ actions.

And, using motion tracking systems, the researchers can see what participants see as they see it, measuring everything from how they respond to compliments to how close they sit to the avatars.

Marsh’s team has devoted the first two years of the five-year grant to intensive programming in the lab to create convincing virtual reality environments and complex interpersonal dating scenarios.

The research team surveyed participants from subsets of the populations it will study – college students, Latinas, and men who have sex with men – about a host of details, from what they find attractive in others to the kind of music they like. They asked participants to sketch their apartments, and took photos of some of those apartments to incorporate into the virtual environments.

They also wrote scripts and hired actors to record the avatars’ voices.

“It’s extremely challenging and labor-intensive to create scenarios and environments that are interactive and engaging, while still being sufficiently controlled for the purposes of our scientific experiments,” Marsh says.

Gifford says about half of AITC’S current projects use virtual reality, while others involve interactive graphics or virtual reality tools without immersing participants.

For example, Gifford helped associate professor of nursing Deborah McDonald, a principal investigator with CHIP, use interactive graphics to create a virtual pain coach, who helps older patients be more articulate in discussing their arthritis pain during doctor’s visits.

“The true value of the AITC is bringing the technology to the end user, the researcher, in a way that he or she doesn’t have to be an expert in it to still be able to use it effectively for his or her research purposes,” he says. “We’re hoping to provide researchers access to the technology without the steep learning curve.”

Natalie Dove, a former postdoctoral researcher at CHIP and now an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University, is a key collaborator on the grant, along with former CHIP doctoral student, David Portnoy, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute. Consultants on the grant include Mary Crawford, professor emerita of psychology and a CHIP affiliate; Merrill Singer, a professor of anthropology; and K. Rivet Amico, a CHIP research scientist. Singer and Amico are principal investigators with CHIP.