When the University of Kent was creating the spec for an integrated Virtual Reality (VR) hardware and software system, it knew that fulfilling the diverse demands of different psychology research programmes was going to be a tall order.
“When I visited a VR lab in the US, I realised the potential of VR for psychological research. VR circumvents many limitations of traditional research because you can create naturalistic environments, yet maintain a high level of control, which is important to establish cause and effect. Back in the UK, I was asked to design a versatile system for different social and cognitive psychology research programmes within the School. We opted for a wide area walking system with enhanced tracking capability, integrated eye-tracking, and augmented reality to save on programming costs and engender an even greater sense of presence.”
Dr. Mario Weick, a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Kent
THE UNIVERSITY OF KENT
The University of Kent was established at Canterbury in 1965 and has now become known as the UK’s European university, with students in Brussels and Paris as well as at its other Kent campuses at Medway and Tonbridge. It has nearly 20,000 students, of which around 17,000 are undergraduates and approaching 3,000 are postgraduates.
The University’s strong European impact is reinforced by long-standing partnerships with more than 100 universities in mainland Europe and it is the only UK university to have specialist postgraduate centres in Brussels and Paris. The University has also developed relationships with many leading overseas universities outside Europe and in 2010 launched a new initiative to offer more scholarships to students from Hong Kong and China.
PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCH AT KENT
The Psychology School has built a strong research reputation in the areas of social psychology; cognitive psychology and neuropsychology; developmental psychology; and forensic psychology. Following the 2008 national Research Assessment Exercise, Psychology at Kent was ranked within the top 20 UK Psychology departments for 4* (world-leading) research..
Dr. Weick studies the impact of social and situational factors on people’s perceptions, judgments, and actions. Most of his work has concentrated on the role of power and control, looking at how powerful and powerless people differ in their perceptions, in the way they make judgments, and in their actions.
This research cuts across different domains and often combines social and organisational psychology with cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience/psychophysiology.
THE VIRTALIS SOLUTION
Virtalis supplied the WorldViz hardware and software system which combines Vizard with PPT-H high speed optical tracking and an InterSense InertiaCube. Virtalis Limited is the exclusive UK reseller for WorldViz hardware and software.
PPT-H is ideally suited for real-time applications such as head- and hand-tracking for interactive immersive virtual reality applications using Head-Mounted Displays (HMD). The optical tracking covers a large area and enables researchers to gather precise position data on a participant’s movements simultaneously from up to 32 markers.
The final piece of the jigsaw was the addition of an NVIS nVisor MH60 HMD with integrated VideoVision, a see-through device. The NVIS HMD also incorporates a custom-made Arrington Eye-Tracker, enabling researchers to track users’ eye-gaze with high precision.
To create a fully integrated VR system from these separate pieces of hardware, the WorldViz engineers supported the Virtalis team in delivering a specialist tracked HMD VR system that Virtalis calls ActiveSpace. Many VR experts say HMD systems, like ActiveSpace, give their users the greatest sense of real life presence, because they allow them the freedom and flexibility to move around unencumbered.
Virtalis ActiveSpace systems have been successfully deployed within other British psychology departments over the last few years, but the combination of a virtual and augmented reality with high-precision motion- and eye-tracking makes the University of Kent system unique.
WorldViz’s Vizard is a market leading, 3D development platform specifically designed to help users build interactive and immersive 3D content. Digital humans can easily be inserted to populate the virtual environments developed.
The combination of Vizard with an augmented reality HMD means that Kent’s users can see both their natural surroundings and own body parts, while animate and inanimate objects can be superimposed upon the real world scene.
Dr. Weick will be continuing work he began in the States analysing how approach behaviours are affected by the environment and the balance of power between the agent and the participant.
In another research programme Dr. Weick and his colleagues are examining how the social context affects people’s perceptions of distance and space.
For example, they observed that inanimate objects appear further away than animate objects placed at identical distances. The psychologists are now conducting studies that alter different parameters within the visual scene to explore the origins of this phenomenon.
“Our goal was to commission a flexible, but rugged system, suited for a range of research programmes”, commented Dr. Weick. “I believe we have succeeded in securing the state-of-the-art in tracked augmented and virtual reality for research purposes.”
University of Kent Website