VR Creator — Peggy Wu (NASA-Funded Research Scientist, VR for Behavioral Health)

JC: Can you tell me a little bit about your professional background? What is your current interest in VR?

PW: I’m a Senior Research Scientist at a small business, SIFT, focused on improving human-automation and automation-mediated human communications through advancing technology development that is scientifically grounded. We’re thrilled to be supporting NASA’s vision of future deep space exploration in a number of ways. Future Mars missions will be 2.5 to 3 years in duration with unprecedented durations of isolation and confinement. There will be network latencies of up to about 20 minutes one way, which means crew members will not be able to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues in real time, and that is very different from the way the International Space Station operates now. In historic spaceflight and analogous environments, there is evidence that these contexts can threaten psychological health and performance. We are investigating the use of VR to combat those threats, to extend the sense of physical space and to invent next generation communications tools. We have evaluated our VR ecosystem, called ANSIBLE, at two astronaut training exercises at the Johnson Space Center, and we’re conducting a year long study at the University of Hawaii facility called HI-SEAS. There, we have an international group of six scientists living as simulated Mars astronauts for 12 months where they are isolated from the rest of the world, and we’re measuring whether and how ANSIBLE helps their behavioral health. By the way, the name ANSIBLE is a term coined by famed science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin.

JC: What kind of virtual environments are you making to support astronauts in deep space?

PW: One of our key concerns is the astronaut’s feeling of connectedness to Earth, so we reviewed the scientific literature and interviewed astronauts and NASA psychologists to identify real world environments and situations that promote psychological wellness. We currently have about 20 fictional environments, which includes reminders of home such as a hometown neighborhood, and nature inspired scenes such as a nature preserve, winter wonderland for skiing and other activities, beach vacation spots, etc. We also have replicas of real environments, such as the 3D model of the dome that the simulated Mars astronauts are currently living in, and one of the crew members provided a tour of the dome in the virtual world for the general public.

We also uploaded Mars topography data so one can use their avatar to walk around in Gale Crater in the virtual world. We have a “family communication center”, where we continually update materials about Earth. We even have an art gallery. Currently, LA based artist Kristine Shomaker is exhibiting her work there. The astronauts on route will be primarily limited to the inside of their vehicle, so we want to provide as much variety as possible for them to have the freedom of choice, and also unveil new materials over the course of a mission, but we also want to carefully select experiences that are evidence-based for maintaining and promoting health. We are always looking for materials and experiences that fit with our objectives, and anyone who wants to contribute their content to the project should contact me!

JC: How does VR design (color, tone, sound) impacts your research or how your research participants react to the environments?

PW: There are a number of ways design impacts our research. We’re dealing with a small number of individuals as opposed to the masses, so we’re looking to create personally meaningful experiences. Further, since we are applying this to deep space exploration, we are really challenged to think about designs that can be sustained over long durations, which is a completely different paradigm than shorter VR experiences that may be consumed just once or twice. We are looking at all types of experiences but a lot of times this means using tried and true classics, and we have been looking heavily to mother nature as the expert on sensory experiences that are tried and true.

JC: How did you decide that VR would be useful for your research?

PW: The VR lab at Johnson Space Center has been using VR for decades to train astronauts on space walks and other equipment use, but a VR application for behavioral health, as far as I know, started in 2009 when my collaborator Jacki Morie, a pioneer in VR, wrote an initial concept paper for NASA about how virtual experiences can provide sensory augmentation. At the same time, SIFT had been examining models of human social communications for NASA, and since the lack of real time communications and social isolation are such salient issues and complimentary to sensory experiences and overall health, it was natural that we collaborated and it has been a very exciting journey since! The unique limitations of a space exploration scenario (e.g. low volume, low mass, low power, and datalink delays and blackouts) have actually benefited us in forcing our team to think hard and strip down what it means to connect with others socially. VR is great because you essentially have unlimited resources to add layers back in and build upon a foundation to create incredibly rich environments.

JC: What has been the most difficult process in implementing a VR project?

PW: The whole infrastructure around VR has come a long way since we started this project. The most challenging aspects has been the technical engineering, getting all the pieces to work together in a real operational environment where we have network delays, especially with technologies that are still at the pre-consumer stage.

JC: Have there been any exciting discoveries in your research so far? If so, what are they?

PW: We have only collected six out of twelve months of data so we don’t have final results yet, but so far the preliminary data analysis suggests that ANSIBLE is in fact helping crew members feel more connected to their family and friends, and even addressing some issues with sensitivity to sensory experiences. We are all eagerly awaiting for the rest of the data to come in to see if those trends hold up empirically for the rest of the mission, especially since we know that the last stretch of the mission can be most challenging. Anecdotally, we gave our simulated Mars subjects their own virtual spaces to build and do whatever they wanted, and we are finding that some social behaviors that occur in real life emerge very naturally in VR, so we are gaining a lot of insight into implications for social VR that might not otherwise be revealed by only looking at shorter VR experiences.

JC: In what other ways do you see VR being used in the fields of psychology and sociology?

PW: Dr. Valerie Rice at Fort Sam has been investigating mindfulness therapy in VR for soldiers and veterans. There are many other efforts in using VR for in-person and remote behavior therapy for acrophobia, or arachnophobia, or PTSD, and other conditions. I am co-chairing a session at the Virtual Reality International Conference later this month where much of this work will be presented.

JC: Is there content you like to see more of in VR/AR?

PW: I think the recent interest and investments in AR/VR will continue to drive the technology so that eventually the visual, audio, and maybe even olfactory modalities will be indiscernible from real life. There is also a lot of investment in feedback and control devices, and in making the experience more interactive. I would love to see more experimentation on behaviors of the environment. It is virtual, after all, can we have environments that react differently than what we experience in real world?

JC: Are there other research projects using VR that you find exciting?

PW: I’m fascinated by two opposite ends of the spectrum. I’m interested in projects that push the human experience to include situations and contexts that we normally don’t or will never be able to experience in real life, but I’m also excited by projects that work towards real, tangible benefits such as those that serve people with communication disorders, or those who are under-represented. From a research perspective, I think because VR is so immersive and compelling, because we can exercise so much control over the environment and to some extent the perspective of the end users, and because we can measure just about everything in the virtual world, it can be an excellent testbed to collect data and test theories in basic research where using real environments or physical artifacts might be too costly, or too dangerous, or just impractical. In terms of specific projects, we have some ideas in the works, but I’m always looking to connect and collaborate with others.

JC: What is the future of VR to you?

PW: I think virtual reality is a communication channel, just like real reality. We have more capabilities to manipulate VR, which to me, means we are unencumbered by physical limitations to learn about and make meaningful connections with other people.