Potential of VR in Pedestrian Safety Research

A new study has sought to determine the potential of VR for the performance of studies that are limited by cost, difficulty, or danger in the real world. The authors used an immersive, interactive VR environment to test pedestrian safety when crossing intersections. Average walking speed with found to be consistent with real-world norms, and rates of pedestrian collision were measured when a vehicle violated the traffic signal in the VR environment. “Overall, the study results confirm the effectiveness of the new virtual reality technology for research on full motion tasks,” the authors conclude.

Deb S, Carruth DW, Sween R, et al. Efficacy of virtual reality in pedestrian safety research. Appl Ergon. 2017.     Basic Research, General VR

Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Mental Health Disorders

The goal of a new review was to determine the therapeutic potential of VR in mental health disorders. By analyzing data from 285 studies, which studied the role of VR in anxiety (n = 192), schizophrenia (n = 44), substance-related disorders (n = 22) and eating disorders, found that VR provides benefit in anxiety disorders. However, evidence was generally weak, and the term VR was often misused in these studies, with few studies using truly immersive, interactive paradigms. “VR has the potential to transform the assessment, understanding and treatment of mental health problems,” the authors conclude.

Freeman D, Reeve S, Robinson A, et al. Virtual reality in the assessment, understanding, and treatment of mental health disorders. Psychol Med. 2017:1-8. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/div-classtitlevirtual-reality-in-the-assessment-understanding-and-treatment-of-mental-health-disordersdiv/A786FC699B11F6A4BB02B6F99DC20237

Observing Costly Altruism in a Virtual Environment

From VR Medicine News–A new study sought to determine neuroanatomical correlates of costly altruism using VR technology. Participants were immersed in a virtual environment where another individual was in danger. Those participants who risked their own lives to save the endangered virtual individuals were found to have a larger right anterior insula than those who did not. The same participants were also found to have a higher level of empathetic concern toward the endangered virtual persons. “These findings add to the growing literature showing the role of caring motivation in promoting altruism and prosociality and its neural correlates in the right anterior insula,” the authors conclude.

Patil I, Zanon M, Novembre G, Zangrando N, Chittaro L, Silani G. Neuroanatomical basis of concern-based altruism in virtual environment. Neuropsychologia. 2017;1-10.

VREX: an Open-Source Toolbox for Creating 3D VR Experiments

From VR Medicine News–The authors present VREX, a free open-source Unity toolbox for VR research in experimental psychology and neuroscience. Using VREX, researchers can create a series of interconnected virtual rooms. These rooms can be furnished and customized to suit the experimental question being tested. Rooms and environments can be combined to perform end-to-end experiments. “VREX simplifies the generation and setup of complicated VR scenes and experiments for researchers,” the authors note. VREX can be downloaded from vrex.mozello.com.

Vasser M, Kängsepp M, Magomedkerimov M, et al. VREX: an open-source toolbox for creating 3D virtual reality experiments. BMC Psychol. 2017;5(1):4.

Multiple Sclerosis, Motor Therapy, and VR

From VR Medicine News–A review article published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology describes interventions for restoring motor function in multiple sclerosis In addition to virtual reality training, these technologies include robotics and constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT). Another promising strategy for enhancing neuroplastic changes is non-invasive brain stimulation that can be used with a priming effect on motor training, the researchers note. The article summarizes the technologies and interventions that have been evaluated in clinical trials to date.

Straudi S, Basaglia N. Neuroplasticity-Based Technologies and Interventions for Restoring Motor Functions in Multiple Sclerosis. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2017;958:171-185. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-47861-6_11.

VR Headset Type Affects User Outcomes

From VR Medicine News–Researchers based in Italy have investigated head-mounted displays for home use and their potential effects on users. Specifically, they evaluated outcomes in knowledge gain, self-efficacy, engagement, and presence over a period of 2 weeks, which they point out is a longer period  than that measured in previous studies. The results suggest that the type of headset used did indeed affect outcomes.

Buttussi F, Chittaro L. Effects of Different Types of Virtual Reality Display on Presence and Learning in a Safety Training Scenario. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2017 Jan 16. doi: 10.1109/TVCG.2017.2653117.

VR Used to Help Simulate Brain Effects of Long-term Driving

Brain activity during long term driving fatigue simulated with Semi-immersive virtual reality technology was measured with functional near-infrared spectroscopy. The researchers, based in China, found that progressive mental fatigue had an adverse effect on cognitive function in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), and the interaction between the PFC and the motor cortex. Why it’s relevant: shows how VR can be useful in recreating environments for brain physiology research.

Xu L, Wang B, Xu G, Wang W, Liu Z, Li Z. Functional connectivity analysis using fNIRS in healthy subjects during prolonged simulated driving. Neurosci Lett. 2017 Jan 10;640:21-28. doi: 10.1016/j.neulet.2017.01.018.

Studies Investigate Tactile Information in VR

Two studies published today relate to the topic of tactile sensation in VR. One study, published in Scientific Reports – Nature, evaluates the relationship between touch and emotion.1 While it’s been known that emotions can affect touch processing within an individual, it’s not been understood how a toucher’s emotional expressions, such as anger, happiness, fear and sadness, can influence touch perception in the person being touched. Participants were presented with tactile stimulation appearing to originate from expressive characters in virtual reality and researchers measured participants’ somatosensory evoked potentials. “The findings show that not only does touch affect emotion, but also emotional expressions affect touch perception,” the researchers conclude.

In a second study researchers investigated the qualitative characteristics of dual-frequency compared to single-frequency vibrations and the perception of distance between the two types of vibrations in hands.2 There were differences between the two types of vibrations, suggesting how tactile information can be more realistically transferred in a VR setting. “These results are expected to provide a fundamental understanding about the perception of complex vibrations to enrich the transfer of information using vibrotactile stimuli,” the authors note.

Why it’s relevant: understanding sensory information is central for creating realistic environments in VR.

1. Ravaja N, Harjunen V, Ahmed I, Jacucci G, Spapé MM. Feeling Touched: Emotional Modulation of Somatosensory Potentials to Interpersonal Touch. Sci Rep. 2017;7:40504. doi: 10.1038/srep40504.
2. Hwang I, Seo J, Choi S. Perceptual Space of Superimposed Dual-Frequency Vibrations in the Hands. PLoS One. 2017;12(1):e0169570. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169570.

Virtual Reality Cage Extension Developed for Rodents

Researchers collaborating in Germany and Israel have developed a rodent cage integrated with a VR arena, which they say will enable “highly efficient experimentation for complex cognitive experiments.” According to the researchers, the development could facilitate many new applications. For example, miniature fluorescence microscopes could be used to monitor brain activity in freely moving rodents. In the current study, published today in the Journal of Neurophysiology, the researchers introduced rats to a spherical virtual reality treadmill called a servoball and monitored cells in the rats’ entorhinal cortex, a part of the brain that functions in memory and navigation. Why it’s relevant: the use of VR in animal models could dramatically expand our understanding of brain physiology in a range of VR replicated settings. This type of model could also be used to understand how VR effects the brain in general.

Kaupert U, Thurley K, Frei K, et al. Spatial cognition in a virtual reality home-cage extension for freely moving rodents. J Neurophysiol. 2017 Jan 11:jn.00630.2016. doi: 10.1152/jn.00630.2016.