The feeling of your feet hitting the pavement can tell you if the ground beneath you is solid or gravel covered. Feeling wind blowing against your face can tell you that it is cold outside.
Human Factors Psychologist Chris Brown studies these details that most of us never notice. Chris has experience in human cognition and perception and applies it to making digital reality feel more real. For Chris, it's a career inspired by a passion that began 20 years ago. Chris became interested in building virtual worlds as a hobby when he was younger. He hung onto that interest into college and later earned a doctorate in human factors psychology. Today, he applies that knowledge and experience while working on digital reality technologies at 3M. He says it’s an expertise that relies on an understanding of cognitive psychology.
“Cognitive psychology is about how your brain works and how all of your senses interact to give you your perception of what the world is,” says Chris.
In a virtual reality (VR) experience, for instance, you put on the goggles, and you can see an environment. “It makes your brain believe that you’re actually there by stimulating your visual senses,” adds Chris.
You can also create a range of emotions that you want people to experience – emotions that are influenced by how your brain and senses respond to them.
Michael Gjere, who also works with AR/VR technologies at 3M as a digital strategist, explains just how emotive digital reality experiences can be. “When I was a child, there were lilac bushes behind our house. Every spring when the lilacs come out, I’m reminded of my childhood. It’s a visceral response,” says Michael. “The same thing goes for if I were playing a video game and was dropped into crashing waves on a beach. There would be a natural intensity coming through.”
And it can have a powerful impact on the human experience – one that Chris saw initial evidence of while designing research studies for his doctoral work in how video games can improve the way we think. “There is all this research saying that video games are terrible for you, but they actually can have some benefits,” he says. His findings? People who played a game on a computer screen for about 10 hours during the week found that their peripheral vision increased, among other cognitive improvements.
“The game physically increased the amount of the world these people could see, even for days after they stopped playing it,” says Chris.
From video games to digital reality, we’re seeing even more unique ways that these types of experiences are having a positive influence on the brain.
Teachers are using VR to help bring textbooks to life for students. Children can be taken on virtual field trips to zoos, museums or even ancient Greece and Mars.
“If you want to learn about the solar system, you create a diorama of the solar system, build it, and get a feeling for the different sizes of the planets,” adds Chris.
With VR, we are seeing an increase in learning in children, because they’re able to experience an additional way to learn.
Chris says that much of that learning has to do with our senses. “The more senses you have engaged when you experience something, the more effectively it’s going to be stored in your memory. The more ways that you’re remembering something, the easier it is to remember it,” he says.
Children aren’t the only age group learning through virtual and augmented realities. Case Western University’s next generation of medical students are, too. They won’t learn anatomy from cadavers, but through augmented reality instead.
They’ll put on a headset, and their professor will guide them through a lesson on a virtual human subject, where they’ll see a 3D representation of a human body. They’ll be able to navigate through the layers of skin, muscle, blood vessels and organs. For instance, they will see the how the heart pumps blood around the body and how each of the veins and arteries feed into it.
It’s revolutionary in many ways. “This technology can enhance training and improve productivity in areas like the medical profession,” says Michael. “We can also find out where things aren’t working as well as we thought.”
That’s why the use of VR for training is extending into other areas – from teaching workers how to use fall protection equipment in the construction industry, to allowing surgeons to preview and practice their procedures before they perform them.
If you’re not a professional, you can even learn how to fix a leaky faucet in the bathroom of your home – without having to call a plumber to do it for you.
And, you may be wearing a VR headset in the future as a patient. VR is being studied across the globe to see how it reduces pain when patients experience distress during painful medical procedures – wound care, burn care, chemotherapy, childbirth and dental procedures are just to name a few.
Instead of seeing a hospital room or a doctor’s office, you’ll transform into a peaceful, scenic environment. Your senses may be overwhelmed with the sight and sound of waves, seagulls and fireflies.
In some cases, this approach has been found to have higher effectiveness in treating chronic pain than traditional medications.
Virtual reality is being used to treat additional health-related symptoms, like those associated with drug addiction, depression and PTSD.
“The mind is incredibly powerful,” Chris says. “If we are in painful situations, it overwhelms all of our senses. Sometimes your vision even gets blurry because something hurts so much,” he says. “The idea is that if you can show someone a relaxing scene, or a cold scene that might be the polar opposite of what they’re experiencing, that could trick your brain into thinking, ‘Oh. Maybe it’s not so bad.’ Or, it can kind of override the pain receptors in your brain and tell them you’re not actually hurting as bad as you thought.”
Through cognitive psychology, virtual and augmented reality can also reduce many common phobias we experience. “If you have a phobia of something, a lot of times a psychologist will expose you to what you’re afraid of over and over again, and it’s supposed to make you numb to what you’re afraid of,” says Chris. “That works really well if you’re afraid of mice or the public, for instance. You can do that pretty easily – but, if you’re afraid of deadly snakes, it’s probably not as good of an idea to go into the jungle and experience deadly snakes.”
With VR, you can immerse yourself in an environment and be exposed to these potentially dangerous things.
The brain reacts to digital experiences completely differently for every single human being. “People tend to feel much more comfortable in an augmented reality experience, because adding information to your environment feels less awkward than being enclosed in a separate one,” says Michael.
That comfort can disappear in a virtual reality experience, because you’re completely blocked, or occluded, from seeing your real environment. In some cases, this causes people to feel nauseous.
“The brain sometimes can get overloaded and overwhelmed by some of these experiences,” says Michael. “People get dizzy. They feel nauseous. I’ve had someone nearly faint.”
3M scientists are working on solutions to create a more comfortable experience.
“We found some technology that we’re trying to start using that desaturates the colors towards the edge of the headset screen, which mimics what your eye does,” says Michael.
Cognitive psychology can also be used to act against motion sickness. “Research shows that if you put a virtual nose in the environment while someone is wearing a VR headset, it can fairly consistently eliminate motion sickness in some people,” says Chris.
For Chris, the opportunity to transform a hobby into a career has been a dream come true.
“I love doing this stuff. Working on virtual reality and creating these environments and experiences has been my dream. I love working with people. That’s the psychology side of everything – but, I really enjoy creating and designing and solving problems in a way that excites people,” he says.
While he can’t predict what the future will hold for these technologies, Chris does know one thing for certain: Digital reality is going to leave an impression. “I think it’s going to be a big deal,” he says. “I think it’s going to end up being widespread.”
Chris and Michael share what excites them when it comes to the future of immersive technology.