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UB lab cultivating use of virtual reality in the classroom

UB's Neurocognition Science Laboratory is exploring the educational potential of virtual reality.

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published December 7, 2016

“The brain does not differentiate between reality and virtual reality. The feelings and response you get would be how you would feel if it were really going on.”
Richard Lamb, associate professor
Department of Learning and Instruction

There is one foolproof way to grasp what UB researchers say could be a dramatic breakthrough in how people learn, technology with educational potential comparable to a tape recorder, video camera or computer monitor. And more to the point, it’s something UB is uniquely poised to advance.

Just strap on the virtual reality goggles, headgear that resembles a mix of a pilot’s oxygen mask and an expensive video game accessory. Don’t forget to tap your feet on the floor, a comforting reminder once the New Millennium amusement park ride of virtual reality begins. Don’t forget to breathe. Establish some grounding signal, like a familiar voice in the room. A dose of immersive, mixed-reality environments, as it’s been called — with all its eerie, exciting, invigorating, disorientating and sometime unexpected sensations depending on the program and the person taking the journey — is on its way.

Open your eyes and all around is an underwater world teeming with fish, plants, submerged ships, coral — all moving around you and beckoning you to explore as if it were really happening. Up, down, right, left. Three-hundred-and sixty-degrees. Total immersion, without an escape hatch short of yanking off those goggles. A school of bright fish emerge from behind a reef. A giant whale — more curious than menacing — approaches from behind. Aiming a handset at a plant makes it open, another visceral signal that this is really happening.

Prefer another location? Stand on top of Vesper Peak in the Northern Cascades, or float suspended in outer space and manipulate the planets as they revolve around a giant sun, all in exact scale as they exist in the solar system.

Follow a path inside an imaginary museum and stand in front of the “Mona Lisa” or the “Statue of David” or the “Terra Cotta Army” or the “Birth of Venus,” all visible a few virtual-reality moments away from each other. An often-seen commercial for a commercial virtual-reality system shows a woman sobbing during her immersive experience. Once those goggles go on, it’s easy to understand such a strong reaction.

“If you’re familiar with video games and the Xbox and things like that, you typically play it on a computer screen,” says Richard L. Lamb, associate professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction in the Graduate School of Education and director of the multidisciplinary Neurocognition Science Laboratory, home of UB’s virtual-reality activity.

“It may have an environment where you can maneuver in three dimensions, but it’s all still flat on the screen,” Lamb says. “Virtual reality is the actual immersion of the person into those three-dimensional environments in such a way where that environment is continuous around them.”

The firsthand familiarity with this “Future Shock” experience is important for two reasons. First, if virtual reality can take us to the bottom of a teeming ocean or close enough to touch civilization’s greatest works of art, consider what other worlds it can simulate. Now imagine the opportunity for Lamb — who is turning this lab into a truly multidisciplinary hub examining “learning across the lifespan” — and the rest of UB.

Lamb, a Sweet Home High School graduate who spent the past few years establishing a similar laboratory at Washington State University, has brought a new opportunity to his hometown. But the lab Lamb set up in Baldy Hall — and is more than happy to share — will benefit from his years of research and problem-solving on the West Coast. This lab will be better, Lamb says, thanks to more access to resources, closer proximity to collaborators and increased engagement with companies such as Lifeliqe, an educational virtual-reality software environment design company.

“Virtual reality has been lacking some credible research background and we are honored to cooperate with Richard Lamb to broaden it,” says Ondrej Homola, CEO of Lifeliqe. “I’m positive the research will reaffirm our hypothesis that VR is the way to go in terms of learning.

“The research is planned to examine the changes in learning using virtual reality,” Homola says, “but also effects of use of VR on children below 14, which is still a controversial topic in dire need of deeper understanding. The research will also focus on children with special needs and within marginalized groups, also an area with urgent need of valid facts.”

When up and running, the virtual reality laboratory will give the Graduate School of Education an opportunity and resources no other university education department in the country has, according to Lamb. Only selected medical schools can match the virtual reality and neuroimaging capabilities of UB’s Neurocognition Science Lab, he says, noting it is one of the only places in the country that combines VR with neuroimaging technologies and other psychological and physiological measures.

The second reason why that individual firsthand experience with the Neurocognition Science Lab matters is something Lamb describes when explaining the dramatic reality many people have during their virtual-reality experiences.

“The brain does not differentiate between reality and virtual reality,” Lamb says. “The feelings and response you get would be how you would feel if it were really going on.”

In other words, parts of your brain think the experience behind the goggles is real.  

“Most people can’t go to the bottom of the ocean or walk with dinosaurs,” he says. “But we can allow you to experience it through virtual reality, and you’ll understand very clearly what that experience is like. You’re going to actually do that.”

And because of the convincing nature of virtual reality, UB educators see its “unlimited” potential as an education tool that ranges from helping pre-kindergarten students experience the world to examining cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s patients.

Lamb’s vision for the Neurocognition Science Laboratory transcends academic boundaries. And although he admits he wasn’t a particularly good student when he attended Sweet Home, his fascination with computer games made him realize, once he became a teacher, how powerful they could be in motivating students and getting them to learn more. 

“It’s a laboratory open to students, faculty and others in the university community,” says Lamb. “And it’s cross-campus, so it’s not just for one department or one discipline. If you think about the natural sciences, when you speak to someone in a molecular biology laboratory, it’s often run by one professor who is doing his or her work in the laboratory.

“This laboratory works on a slightly different model. It’s similar to a national laboratory in the sense that people bring projects to the laboratory. We have equipment they can use and apply to their own projects,” he explains.

“The laboratory supplies support structures for researchers and a hub to collaborate across disciplines. So what we’re doing is we’re moving out of this individual approach to research about learning and creating a means to approach much more complex societal problems — the types of problems that cannot be solved by one researcher.”

Lamb’s interdisciplinary approach already has resulted in an extensive list of active research. Among the ongoing projects:

  • A screening tool for autism that is an extension of work occurring at Washington State University and Northwestern University. Through the use of specific audio and visual patterns, UB researchers hope to characterize both a hemodynamic and electrical response across the surface to the brain and identify unique responses for students with autism. Eventually, the idea would be to work this into a screening tool for school psychologists to recommend services more quickly than what is currently available.
  • A study examining mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s dementia is designed to eventually create an adaptive screening tool that differentiates between ordinary aging and mild cognitive impairment, which more often than not is an early sign of Alzheimer’s dementia. By making use of an adaptive screening tool, clinicians may be able to recommend treatment or additional testing earlier and for less cost. 
  • Virtual classroom environments for students studying to be teachers and administrators. In TeachLivE, one of these virtual classroom environments, UB education majors stand in front of their class facing a virtual-reality monitor. On the monitor is a simulated classroom with avatars — simulated students in the classroom guided by human actors — who confront the education major with “disruptive behaviors” coming from the VR students in the VR classrooms.

“Think about an airplane simulator,” Lamb says. “We have pilots on airplane simulators for lots and lots of hours, so they can practice being a pilot.

“TeachLivE offers the same kind of opportunities for someone who wants to be a teacher. We put them in a classroom simulator and they have the opportunity to correct behaviors, practice their lessons and practice all these components. And just like an airplane simulator, we have a lot of control over what kinds of behaviors they deal with, what kinds of questions they get, so they can really tailor the relationship between the student learning to be a teacher and the environment they are in.”

Lamb also has taken his VR goggles and accompanying images into UB’s Fisher-Price Endowed Early Childhood Research Center (ECRC). Some students were cautious when Lamb made his first visit to the center. By the next session, they were waiting in line for their turn with the goggles. ECRC classroom teacher and curriculum coordinator Keely O’Connell sat with the students and reassured them while a television monitor displayed the images the student saw with the goggles.

“When I put these things on my eyes, I’m going to feel like I’m somewhere else,” O’Connell told them before the activity began.

“I can see underneath him!” one student said when a sea turtle swam above him. “There are a lot of fish here.”

ECRC director X. Christine Wang says virtual reality is “pushing the frontier” of education. “It could potentially revolutionize the power of technology to promote learning and development,” she says. 

Wang stresses virtual-reality activity should be linked to good research on how it affects student learning and sound educational practice so it’s not just used as a “novelty.” But technology often advances more quickly than expected.

“Five years ago, an iPad was a luxury,” Wang says. “Now it’s become widely adopted in families and school.

“Not all the students will be able to visit the ocean. But we can bring the ocean to them.”