New immersive cognition laboratory

Ella Rhodes on the new Centre for Immersive Technologies at the University of Leeds.

The University of Leeds has recently launched its Centre for Immersive Technologies, bringing together more than 80 researchers from psychology, engineering, computer science, the arts, humanities and social sciences. Led by Psychology Professor Mark Mon-Williams, researchers at the new centre hope to tackle areas including health and education using Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality technologies.

The Immersive Cognition (ICON) laboratory is one part of the new centre. Its interdisciplinary team of psychologists, engineers, and computer scientists have been moving to improve psychological science through the use of VR. One example is PhD researcher Jack Brookes, who recently published the Unity Experiment Framework (UXF) to help researchers design and run experiments in VR. The team at ICON said that thanks to the relatively easy replicability of virtual environments this type of platform may help to promote open science and combat psychology’s replication crisis. Brookes explained: ‘The UXF platform is a code base that plugs into Unity – a game engine used to program video games. It gives users a simple way of managing the trial, block, and session parameters, which are common to all behavioural experiments. It takes the technical difficulty out of wanting to do this very specific thing in a game engine, letting the user focus instead on creating their experiment.’

Another PhD researcher from ICON, John Pickavance, is using UXF-based VR experiments to assess the development of young people’s movement skills. His research looks at performance on interceptive timing tasks, or the ability to hit a moving target, which has been shown to predict mathematical attainment in primary school children.

The portability of VR has allowed Pickavance to take experiments out of the lab enabling him to reach a wider pool of participants. He recently ran an interceptive timing experiment at the Eureka! science museum during British Science Week, with hundreds of participants of all ages, allowing him to assess how this skill develops in three dimensions throughout the lifespan.

These experiments are a continuation of the Born in Bradford project which, since 2007, has been linking health and education data from more than 13,500 children born in the city. One of its aims is to identify measures which have a bearing on young people’s outcomes, enabling the early identification of those in need of tailored support. Immersive technologies will play an important role, as the Centre for Immersive Technologies has plans to install VR across all of Bradford’s secondary schools.

Pickavance told me the benefits of this initiative are wide-ranging partly because VR movement assessments are an improvement on traditional measures. ‘The research which established the link between interceptive timing and maths ability was done using a standard desktop computer in two dimensions. This necessarily constrained the kinds of measures we could take. VR removes this barrier and opens up new possibilities. We can now start tracking movements in three dimensions and subsequently, we hope, improve the resolution of our measures and their predictive power.’

VR’s ‘cool factor’ offers opportunities for science outreach and engagement in schools. Pickavance has been pitting secondary school students against teachers in a game of VR baseball, investigating whether noisy teenagers can have an effect on performance in sport. This has led to discussions about statistics, experimental control, and the role the students will play by participating in experiments which will inform the Born in Bradford project over the coming years.

There are further plans to engage sixth formers in citizen science projects. Working with the Centre, they will pose their own questions which can be answered in VR, subsequently collecting data from their peers at school. Using VR, Pickavance said he hopes to educate and inspire future generations of scientists from all backgrounds.

To find out more about the Unity Experiment Framework go to tinyurl.com/y3uljqsq

Photo: PhD researcher John Pickavance

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