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Psychologists delve into virtual world

The gadgets in Psychology Prof. Dennis Proffitt's lab don't look like they could be of much use outside of an amusement park.

In one room a person can go head to head against laser-spitting orbs with R2D2 and C3PO. In another, one can cruise around in a virtual world on treadmills. These exhibits, however, are part of cutting edge research that will help uncover answers in psychological theory and possibly bring about a new age of computer technology.

Proffitt's virtual reality lab in Gilmer Hall now is conducting two studies: One on the relationship between vision and motor skills, and the second dealing with a theory called spatial updating -- the ability to locate an object that is out of one's line of sight.

The first experiment is part of an ongoing investigation to unearth the connection between vision and motor skills in the body.

"There's a relation with what you do and what you see," Proffitt said. "You've come to learn that when you walk around, your world flows by at a certain rate."

In the experiment, Proffitt and researchers have subjects run on treadmills while viewing virtual scenes. Running on treadmills, however, confuses the rate at which the world moves in relationship to the body. The treadmill prompts the body to move forward, yet the body sees itself in a stationary environment.

Research scientist Tom Banton said when the person steps off a treadmill, he temporarily feels the world is moving faster than he is walking. Banton said this reaction is how the body adjusts its systems.

Because the researchers knew that treadmills upset the balance between vision and motor skills, they proposed that if people were placed in a moving virtual environment on a treadmill, their vision and motor capabilities would coincide, and their vision and motor skills would not have to adjust.

In the test, participants walked on a treadmill at a three-mile-per-hour pace behind a virtual golf cart that moved at three miles per hour. They then were asked to identify numbers in the air and around them as they walked. After walking the entire path, they were blindfolded, led off the treadmill onto a lined mat and asked to walk in place for 20 seconds.

Researchers predicted the subjects would stay in place because their vision in the virtual world would correspond with their walking pace on the treadmill. However, they were proven wrong when every subject walked forward several feet.

Proffitt said it remains a mystery why the virtual moving world could not substitute for the real moving world on a treadmill. He said he could only speculate that the reaction solely involved the motor system and its adjustment from walking forward on the treadmill.

Because Proffitt and his team's hypothesis was proven wrong, the study will continue to research why participants reacted the way they did. The lab also will change variables with the hope that it will shed some light on the motor-vision system interaction.

"We'll try to change the vision -- make the world go backwards, go faster and slower than normal. Because right now, we don't know," Proffitt said.

Another project the lab has been working on may revolutionize the organization of the workplace. One year ago, the lab studied spatial updating to improve current computer desktop displays. This year, however, they are considering the creation of a human computer interface that will project the computer screen onto four walls and allow the user to interact effectively as if they were in a virtual environment.

The interface will be accomplished by using a projector no bigger than a laptop, though Proffitt said even smaller projectors eventually will be used.

When created, this interface will not only eliminate the PCs on desks, it also will create more desktop space to work on by immersing the user in a virtual desktop environment.

The lab is doing its part to make the human computer interface a possibility by continuing its research to see how people keep track of an object that is out of sight. In the virtual world created by a computer interface, people would have to notice objects outside of their normal visual range.

In Proffitt's laboratory experiments, subjects wear virtual reality headgear and shoot a gun at objects in front of them and just out of their visible sight range. Researchers in the lab then measure the angle that the shot missed the target. If the result was a small angle, the person was accurate in hitting the target.

So far the research has shown that humans have accurate spatial updating ability and are adept at locating objects out of their sight range.

With this knowledge, Proffitt said "it is possible to create a virtual reality world with computers that immerse yourself in a virtual environment."

While both of the projects in Proffitt's lab deal with serious subjects combined with the latest technology, researchers in the virtual lab prefer to stay light-hearted about their research.

"Having fun is important," Profitt said.