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Psychology Lab’s Success Is a Virtual Reality

Professor Sebrechts and M.A. candidate Willie ParkerThe GI skulks past the stairwell of the Middle Eastern fortress controlled by insurgents. A spray of bullets erupts from the corner of a nearby hallway. Slowly, he approaches the bathroom door and then charges in to rescue the hostage. Mission accomplished, the GI removes his virtual-reality headgear and exits the U.S. military installation to take a break from his training program.

According to CUA psychology professor and department chair Marc Sebrechts, American military personnel, law enforcement officers and firefighters have indeed been navigating virtual, or 3-D, representations of buildings to prepare for rescue missions. For the past 10 years, Sebrechts has been a leader in exploring the effectiveness of virtual reality as a training tool.

“We now know that this technology can give a person greater navigational knowledge of an unfamiliar building than they would get by walking around in the actual building,” says the professor, who has produced a dozen studies on the subject of virtual reality and is the director of CUA’s Cognition and Virtual Reality Lab.

“Marc’s work is among the very best in terms of exploring the exciting interfaces between VR technology, our scientific understanding of cognition and behavior, and real-world approaches to problems,” says Larry Hettinger, a technical director for human-systems integration at Northrop Grumman who has done virtual-reality research and technology development for NASA and the military.

Sebrechts’ virtual-reality studies are funded in part by grants of $250,000 from the Army Research Institute, $150,000 from the Office of Naval Research and $80,000 from the National Defense University — monies secured with the assistance of Associate Professor Deborah Clawson. Though military funding supports the studies, the purpose of Sebrechts’ research is to understand how all of us — not just soldiers — navigate the world.

In Sebrechts’ lab, a subject straps on a $3,000 head-mounted display. In front of his eyes, two lenses reflect 3-D imagery generated by a computer. As the subject moves his head, his field of view is updated as it would be in the real world. He moves through a virtual building by controlling a hand-operated joystick.

The virtual building that the subject moves through is a model of CUA’s Edward M. Crough Center for Architectural Studies. Sebrechts chose the Crough Center because most CUA students have never been inside it and thus can be recruited as test subjects. After the students have navigated the virtual building, Sebrechts tests how much they’ve learned by having them make their way through the actual Crough Center.

The professor predicts that training in the navigation of virtual buildings will eventually become standard procedure for certain policemen, firefighters and intelligence personnel, partly because virtual environments are much easier to control than their real-world counterparts. In a virtual model, for example, Sebrechts can test how navigational ability is affected when subjects are assigned competing spatial or verbal tasks. A spatial task might be hunting for green spheres situated throughout the building. A verbal task could be listening to sounds through headphones while navigating.

“Firefighters and hostage rescuers often are equipped with a communication device, so it’s important to explore how subjects deal with communications as they navigate,” says Sebrechts.

One of the principal goals of the professor’s work is to improve people’s survey knowledge — i.e. the ability to travel to a certain location from any given point in space — as opposed to route knowledge, which is gained by memorizing landmarks or particular paths and thus limits one’s travel options.

“Many people function primarily with route knowledge, and if they run into a traffic jam they have no clue how to get to work,” says Sebrechts. “But those with survey knowledge can get off a clogged road and head to work following different routes without ending up in Kansas.”

Training in a virtual building equipped with transparent walls can give people more survey knowledge of the building than walking around in the actual building would, according to research done by Sebrechts and graduate students Michael Piller and Ben Knott.

Sebrechts and Ph.D. candidate Laura Mullin have also confirmed a suspicion that many of us may have developed while driving to unfamiliar locations: Acquiring survey knowledge becomes much more difficult when a navigator is required to follow oral directions given by a second party, like a backseat driver. Sebrechts and Mullin’s research suggests that future maps could be equipped with virtual, interactive components to make them more helpful. – J.H.T.

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Revised: March 2006

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