Bucks New University’s psychology students work with VR

Virtual reality technology which measures eye-movements while patients interact with the environment is being used by psychology students

A new Virtual Reality Lab, which took six months to complete, has been opened at Bucks New University. It includes includes headsets, dedicated cubicles and eye-tracking facilities, and has been hailed as a ‘giant step forward’ by lecturers.

Head of Department, Dr Ciaran O’Keeffe said: “We are pleased to make this significant investment. Virtual reality is being more widely employed in psychological therapy, for example the treatment of phobias and pain management. 

“Having virtual reality available to our students provides them with a unique opportunity to gain experience of technology used in psychological therapies and allows us to explore environments, behaviours and altered perceptual experiences not possible in a traditional classroom. This has exciting potential for learning, teaching and research opportunities.”

Equipment include HTC Vive Virtual Reality Headsets with room-scale tracking technology, which turn the Psychology Lab into a ‘play area’ where people can freely move around a space, giving an immersive experience. 

Tobii Pro eye tracking facilities are used to record and quantify eye-movements and gaze to ascertain how people process visual information while they interact with the environment.

Five experimental cubicles in the Lab contain Biopac Student Labs, manufactured by BIOPAC Systems Inc, which assess ‘live’ recordings of physiological states, including heart rate, electrical activity in the brain, and skin conductance (Electrodermal Activity).

Katherine Frei, studying BSc (Hons) Psychology and Sociology, said: “Using the Virtual Reality Lab for my dissertation was extremely helpful and I wouldn’t have been able to conduct my research in the same way without it. 

“My experience using the virtual reality equipment was interesting and it will be useful for practicing presentations, which in turn will give students more confidence in their public speaking abilities.’ 

The equipment is exceptional, and stimulates many questions. It will be great to use some of the equipment for dissertation topics – Carol McIntosh, Psychology undergraduate

Carol McIntosh, studying BSc (Hons) Psychology, said: “The Virtual Reality Lab has helped to promote a feeling of what a psychology lab may look like outside of the university.  

“The equipment is exceptional, and stimulates many questions. It will be great to use some of the equipment for dissertation topics.”

Third-year students studying a module in Exceptional Human Experiences are also using the HTC Vive Virtual Reality Headsets to explore the ‘overview effect’, a cognitive and perceptual shift experienced by astronauts viewing earth from space.

The Department of Psychology is also working on a project with the BSc (Hons) Games Development student Connor Lloyd to develop a virtual reality haunted house for students to walk through, monitoring their reactions and emotions.

The virtual reality experience, lasting around five minutes, sees Connor using the Biopac Student Lab facilities to record the physiological responses in his fellow Game Development students as they play his game. 

The aim is to monitor which aspects of the gaming environment users find most physiologically stimulating to help him optimise the design of his game. Games Development students also use the equipment in their studies.

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