Tuesday, September 2, 2008

VR to Help Lost Patients

A study published in the UK a few years ago, found that the staff at one large hospital spent many hours each year giving directions to lost patients. Finding the way can be urgent when an individual is critically ill and needs to locate an emergency care facility and can mean the difference between life and death.

According to a press release from the University of California at San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences, the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, and the UCSD Division of Calit2, researchers have developed an interactive and synchronized virtual reality and electroencephalography (EEG) prototype to study how to help individuals find their way in buildings. The goal is to gain a better understanding of how humans create “cognitive maps” of architectural spaces even when those architectural spaces are virtual.

Researchers gave the test subjects the task to find their way in a physical location. The locations were then projected in scale onto Calit2’s StarCAVE virtual reality system, a 360 degree 15 panel 3-D immersive environment.

Next the test individuals were instructed to learn and memorize the location of all the rooms and corridors during “free exploration” in StarCAVE. Each individual then completed 96 trials where they navigated through the virtual building from the front lobby or back corridor toward stated goals. These goals were posted on the StarCAVE screen before the trial began.

During the trial, the test subjects were fitted with what looked like red swimming caps covered in strands of spaghetti. The tangle of noodles turned out to be 256 high density EEG electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain. An amplifier system placed in a backpack worn by the test subjects connected the electrodes via one fiber optic cable to a recording system outside the StarCAVE.

The test subjects then moved around the virtual environment representing a building. Their movements were synchronized with the data from the EEG sensors and the virtual reality data stream online in real-time. The researchers were able to track movements and responses, note visual clues and scenes as the subject moved along, and observe physiological responses as the test subjects encountered specific landmarks.

More studies will be made and the study will be conducted in a real building in the real world. The team plans to publish a paper on the results of this prototype study and then use the findings to write a larger grant proposal. The researchers hope to come to a deeper understanding of how the brain processes the underlying formation of memories which may provide new clues on how building, hospitals, and emergency centers should be designed.