by Syed Hussain Ather
Graphic design by Anais Lupu
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) continue to surge in popularity among the general public, with students and employees embracing virtual classrooms and workplaces, and scientists taking advantage of the ability to conduct experiments in simulated learning environments. While these technologies revolutionize the way we interact with the world and study our behaviour, many researchers lack the technical resources to use them to their fullest potential. A new initiative aims to change that.
SilicoLabs, a new startup created by Benjamin Alsbury-Nealy, a Ph.D. candidate in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Toronto, offers an experiment design platform to let researchers (primarily scientists, as well as discipline and industry professionals) deploy surveys and experiments in immersive environments without the need for programming.
(Top) Participants at Cambridge University interact with virtual objects, like this cat, while wearing an AR headset and mobile EEG cap. (Bottom) Researchers at Mila are training AI models in 3D environments like this one with the robot and key. (source: Kyla Alsbury-Nealy)
Using their no-code software, ‘Experimenter’, scientists can create and manage tasks using behavioural and biosensor data, including that from electroencephalogram (EEG), electromyography (EMG), and electrocardiogram (ECG). Experimenter provides a flexible no-code experiment design framework that allows researchers to create a wide range of 2D and 3D tasks that can be administered across various devices, including desktop computers, virtual and augmented reality headsets, and mobile devices.
“Virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence are revolutionizing the way we interact with the world around us and provide exciting new ways to study human behaviour,” Alsbury-Nealy said. This would increase researchers’ abilities to collect data from participants in more varied and lifelike settings compared to the traditional desktop computers in psychology laboratories – though the software is built to make any kind of experiment or survey easy to create.
Researchers are already using Experimenter internationally to create a wide range of tasks in both 2D and 3D environments for desktop computers, mobile devices, and headsets from virtual and artificial reality. At the University of Toronto, Experimenter is being used to run full 3D environment experiments remotely, which has allowed data collection to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom have used Experimenter to create one of the world’s first augmented reality and mobile EEG studies, where participants navigate the campus to locate virtual objects placed in real-world locations (see photo).
But Experimenter is not just for human participants. In fact, any task created in Experimenter can also be performed by artificial intelligence (AI) models. This allows human behaviour to be modelled with “unprecedented comparative accuracy.” Using this feature has allowed researchers at the Mila Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute to test models of human cognition.
SilicoLabs Founder/CEO Benjamin Alsbury-Nealy poses with the Oculus Quest 2 headset for simulating environments with VR technology. The use of VR/AR technology offered by startups like these lets researchers do more with less. (source: Kyla Alsbury-Nealy)
The startup also hopes, that in making scientific research more accessible, they can address greater issues of mistrust and misinformation in science. As it is the responsibility of the scientific community to find better ways of communicating research to the general public, this can be accomplished, in part, by sharing research, discovery, and technology tools with the general public. Making these technologies more accessible, approachable, and shareable would allow for greater transparency in the research process. In addition, conducting experiments under more immersive and lifelike conditions will improve the applicability of scientific findings to real-world problems.
VR technology has already shown compatibility with non-invasive imaging technologies alongside invasive cell recording techniques.1 Its uses have included testing spatial cognition and navigation in experiments like the Morris water maze, in which animals must swim and remember where different platforms are located underwater. Virtualizing this classic experiment makes it easy to test human subjects (without needing a swimming pool) and adds critical layers of experimental control and reproducibility. In the virtual world, experiments in which subjects must integrate information and experiences across different senses, such as using disparate inputs like sight, sound, and touch into a greater perceptual experience can also be performed in ways to modify or change inputs more accordingly. For the “rubber hand” experiment, in which the subject feels the “touch” of a rubber hand as though it were their own, the “imposter limb” syndrome can be easily recreated. This experiment has been conducted in VR, demonstrating that body ownership, or the feeling that your body is your own, can be altered by interacting with a virtual body.
Going virtual also provides more opportunities for improving the accuracy and efficiency of the research process itself. Experimenter allows users to independently iterate experiments faster and with fewer resources, so they can answer more questions, make discoveries, and improve transparency. More research means more discoveries that can lead to timely and accurate diagnoses, as well as effective treatment options for the many mental, cognitive, and behavioural health conditions that people are living with today.
Moving forward, Alsbury-Nealy’s group predicts a bright future for virtual reality and neuroscience. He sees his startup’s work having the potential in advancing virtual technologies beyond the lab setting, providing access to populations that may be difficult to reach such as senior residents of long-term care homes. Examples of these far-reaching applications include transforming standalone VR headsets into mobile testing rooms for use in a variety of contexts as well as AR for human behaviour in real-world settings. By making research more accessible to scientists and subjects alike, these new VR startups can then revolutionize the way scientific research is performed.
Mobile testing rooms using virtual reality headsets, mimicking traditional lab environments (source: Kyla Alsbury-Nealy).
- Bohil CJ, Alicea B, Biocca FA. Virtual reality in neuroscience research and therapy. Nature reviews neuroscience. 2011 Dec;12(12):752-62.