DALI lab partners with NASA on virtual reality

by Amanda Zhou | 1/12/16 7:40pm

Funded by grant money from NASA’s National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Dartmouth professors and students are working to develop virtual reality technology to solve the psychological problems experienced during long-duration space flight. The project, called Psych VR, is being conducted by a group of investigators that includes two professors from the Geisel School of Medicine and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Jay Buckey and Mark Hegel, and computer science professor Lorie Loeb, from the Dartmouth Digital Arts Leadership Innovation lab.

Loeb said that the project’s mission, exploring “the therapeutic potential of virtual reality,” excites her. She noted that the immersive virtual experience needed to create “an escape” for those experiencing long-duration space flight or other extreme situations like being in the Arctic could be a “real way to trick the brain and get people thinking they’re somewhere else.”

Buckey said they hope to create a virtual “immersive environment” based on attention restoration theory, the idea that people are able to function more productively after spending time in nature.

He said that he has been interested in exploring how to make long-duration space flight possible. He said that one of the challenges to this are the psychological effects of extended space travel.

“[Virtual reality] looks like it could be a promising way to address some of the problems with long duration space flight and being in isolated and confined environments,” he said.

Buckey said he realized virtual reality could be a solution through discussions with DALI.

DALI creates video content and shoots footage using 14 GoPro cameras — seven to simulate each human eye — mounted on a Hero 360 mount. This allows for depth perception.

Ben Holland ’16, who is involved with the project, said after DALI finalizes the video footage, they send it to NASA, which tests it in the Arctic.

Sean Oh ’17, who also works in the DALI lab, said that the Arctic functions as a simulation of space.

Arctic users are asked to rate their level of stress after using the program. Control users also rate their stress level after viewing footage from inside a classroom or an auditorium. The team aims to determine if stress levels go down after viewing scenic footage.

The nature footage primarily consists of visual content from around the College, including footage of the golf course and Occom Pond.

The primary obstacle has been technical, as the technology involved with converting video footage into 3D footage on the Oculus Rift is still new, Buckey said, so the hardware and software require frequent updates.

“It involves some effort on our part to have a stable system, I think that will get better over time,” he said.

The recent commercial release of the Oculus Rift will widen its usership, Buckey said.

“As more iterations of the Oculus come out, and people become more and more involved with the VR stage, the stitching quality and viewing quality will eventually reach a level where it does feel like you are there,” he said.

Holland said there are still some inconsistencies and imperfections produced when the footage is stitched into a sphere to be used on the Oculus Rift.

“The part that’s really hard is creating the content itself,” said Loeb. “When you’re creating something that’s 360 degrees with all that video that’s a lot of gigabytes of material and then on top of that stitching it all together, there are some technical issues with just the scale of this kind of work.”

Loeb said they have an Apple Mac Pro hard drive in the lab that can “barely handle” the sheer amount of computation processing despite its size.

Despite the technical limitations, Holland said that testing the virtual reality system has been a lot of fun.

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “I think one aspect of this DALI project which makes it sort of different from the others is that I get to go outside quite a bit.”

Buckey hopes to take the technology to Antarctica and ultimately space. In order for that to happen, he said that they would need to determine the efficacy of different visual content and the optimal virtual reality session length.