Supriyo Rana | November 8, 2022
Virtual reality (VR) is currently one of the hottest technological trends, both in the United States and globally. The technology has many applications in various fields such as healthcare, entertainment, and industry. VR technology has made tremendous strides over the past decade. Since the cost of VR equipment has gone down phenomenally, the technology is now more commercially available. However, many more improvements are still in the works. For example, if you have ever tried on a virtual reality headset, you might’ve felt dizzy or nauseous, which is a result of the differences in depth perception in virtual reality versus real life.
VR technology continues to be developed through extensive research, even right here at Vanderbilt University. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Gayathri Narasimhan, who is one of the lead researchers in Vanderbilt’s Learning in Virtual Environments (LIVE) Lab, about her research on virtual reality.
The LIVE Lab looks at perception, locomotion, and navigation in virtual environments. Dr. Narasimhan aims to answer the question: “How does the perceptual system interact with virtual environments and how can that knowledge be used to enhance the technology?” Specifically, she is passionate about investigating the effects of playing virtual games on the perceptual system of young kids, since their perceptual systems are still developing. Ultimately, Dr. Narasimhan seeks to determine whether kids are able to adapt to virtual environments faster than adults.
Dr. Narasimhan’s interest in studying the effects of virtual environments on children’s perceptual systems began in graduate school, where she compared children’s abilities to gauge thrown ball distance in a real environment versus in a virtual environment. In her current research, she hopes to compare adults’ and children’s abilities to gauge distances in real versus virtual environments. The LIVE Lab also hopes to look at the developmental aspects of perceptual systems in kids and how accurate they are compared to adults’ when gauging distances, and so on.
According to her, one of the most challenging aspects of Dr. Narasimhan’s research is working with young kids. During experiments, lightweight devices are put on a child’s head that can then place them in an immersive virtual environment. However, the devices are still really heavy for young kids to keep on their head for extended periods of time. One limitation of her research is that kids in the real world are now playing in virtual environments younger than the ages that the LIVE Lab can ethically test on in a lab environment. Furthermore, another challenge is presented by not yet knowing the long term consequences of virtual reality on developing visual systems.
Dr. Narasimhan wants to improve the technology itself to understand implications in long term research, as this would help her team understand the visual system better. She hopes to enhance her team’s understanding of the virtual environment using virtual reality because of its applications for training surgeons or helping people carry out complicated manufacturing tasks. Ultimately, she views the technology itself as a learning tool in different fields.
Anyone who is interested in virtual reality technology, especially if they have had some classes on virtual reality in the computer science department, should consider doing research with the LIVE Lab. Prior programming experience is beneficial, but not a must, as her team does programming in Unity. Anyone interested in joining the LIVE Lab should reach out to Dr. Robert Bodenheimer at email@example.com.