Virtual reality: exploring new dimensions

24 May 2018
What will we create with virtual reality?
Delve into the world of virtual reality and find out what the future holds, at the Sydney Science Forum 'Virtual Reality: exploring new dimensions'
Animated graphic of a man using virtual reality lens

Virtual reality is no longer limited to science fiction movies or video games - discover how rapid advances in technology in the past ten years have made the seemingly impossible possible. Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall will take us on a virtual reality journey showcasing some of the immersive ways that this new technology can be used.

See how virtual reality can be used in training to gain new skills, such as surgery, and in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders, such as phobias.

Dementia specialist, Professor Olivier Piguet, will reveal how virtual reality now provides opportunities to examine behaviours in ways that would otherwise be impossible in real life. Find out how virtual reality can be used to test memory functions in a safe and controlled environment, or to assess social cognition in a more sophisticated way.

With its increasing affordability, this technology has opened the door to novel ways to teach, measure cognition and behaviour, and to design flexible interventions to treat various mental disorders and cognitive deficits.

What's it really like in the virtual reality lab?

Two of Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall's team let us in to their virtual reality world.

Christopher Evans
Bachelor of Science with Honours in Psychology

"I first became involved in the field of virtual reality when Professor David Alais introduced me to Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall, who is now my Honours supervisor," explained Chris.

"Within the Human Factors Lab at the University of Sydney, I was able to experience first-hand the capacity for virtual reality to immerse the individual in an interactive and naturalistic world with near limitless possibilities and opportunities for exploration and discovery," said Chris.

"I became really interested when Hamish demonstrated the medical applications of VR in improving the lives of hospitalised patients. Luckily, I was able to take on Hamish's project for my Honours year research."

"My project examines changes in the mood - positive and negative affect - of hospitalised patients in response to the presentation of immersive VR experiences of family or social events that the patient would otherwise be unable to attend."

Chris is also examining the relationship between perceived immersiveness and enjoyment of VR technology, and the mood of the patient.

Using his experience in psychology and immunology - Chris also completed an Honours year last year in immunology - he is able to integrate both the medical and psychological components of the project, and also make contact with and apply the VR intervention to viable patients.

"My research really highlights the important clinical applications of VR as an effective service in hospital settings that can greatly improve the lives of hospitalised patients," said Chris.

"My experience interacting with patients in a clinical setting and appreciation for the benefits of VR technology in a psychological and medical context have been greatly increased through this invaluable opportunity of completing Honours with Hamish. I'm hoping to use this knowledge in future as a registered psychologist."

Dr Elodie Chiarovano
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

"In my research, I use virtual reality to help patients suffering from vertigo and imbalance. I first started to work with VR during my PhD when I came to visit the Human Factors Lab in 2014 from France," said Elodie.

I use virtual reality to help patients suffering from vertigo and imbalance.
Dr Elodie Chiarovano

"At that stage, we developed several visual perturbations using VR headsets. The effectiveness of the perturbation was measured at the same time by a Wii Balance Board and an iPhone app developed by the lab called BalanceRite. With this tool, we are able to objectively measure the balance performance of patients in hospitals and clinics," explained Elodie.

"During my current Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, we have developed new methods for balance training and rehabilitation using VR. Exposing patients to a particular (optokinetic) stimulation for 10 minutes a week for four weeks showed an improvement in the objective and subjective balance performances.

"We've recently developed an app called VertigoReality which simulates an attack of vertigo. This app helps the patient to better describe what he or she feels during the attack and also helps the clinician to better characterise the symptom for a better diagnosis.

"Furthermore, the app has an educational purpose for relatives of the patient. With VR we are able to show them and make them feel what the patient actually experiences each time an attack of vertigo occurs. We believe that this VR experience increases the empathy toward the patient and helps them feel better understood by their family," said Elodie.

"My work is not only to develop and validate our VR tools; we also aim to scale them to many hospitals and clinics for the direct benefit of the patient and clinicians. During the last two years, about 30 clinics in Australia and overseas have been equipped with our VR apps, and more than 1000 patients have been tested and trained with our tools.

"All our VR apps are downloadable or given for free to clinicians who seek to use them with their patients." 

Laparoscopic Surgery

Watch a virtual reality laparoscopic surgery, using fine surgical instruments