It’s the experience of a lifetime, or at least the illusion of one; that’s virtual reality and it’s being created by some very real students.
The department of applied research teamed up with the psychology department at the University of Quebec and the Outaouais and recruited some game development students to work on a very ground-breaking project.
They call it Cyberpsychology and it’s a completely virtual world in which psychologists can treat patients with various phobias, disorders, and even addictions.
“It’s the most immersive environment possible to date,” says Gerry Paquette, a professor of game development and student advisor to the project.
The venture began three years ago when the project’s head psychologist, Stephan Bouchard, approached applied research to enlist the help of Algonquin’s game development students.
“They had the programmers and the psychologists and the hardware, but no media experts,” said Paquette. So they called up applied research and Paquette, along with John Omura, began to interview game students for co-op positions.
The students would help create the virtual environments and package the software so it could be used by psychologists in their offices.
“The main parts were already there when I came in,” said Christopher Cork, one of the students currently working part time at the cyberpsychology lab. “Their artists create the 3D models; the people, buildings, spiders etcetera, but we make it come to life, we take the spider and make it crawl around. We do the guts, the underpinnings, the things that make them do what they’re supposed to do.”
The showpiece of the project, the immersive world where it all come to life, is called “the cave”; a 10 foot-squared cube of screens and projectors. “It’s like having room-sized T.V.s all around you,” said Paquette.
Inside the cave, the patient wears 3D glasses and head tracker that monitors their location within the walls; that way the computer can change the image and perspective on the screens to respond to the person’s movements.
“It adds a whole other level of reality,” said Paquette.
The person inside the cave also has a wand, which is a remote control with a thumbstick. The wand is used by the person inside the cave to navigate through their virtual environment.
“In the cave, you have a bubble of space around you but if you want to move beyond that bubble, without walking into the walls of the cave, you need the joystick,” said Cork.
Cork is very excited to this unique opportunity to work on such an exclusive project. “[Being able to work on virtual reality] is like being a mechanic and getting to work on a ferrari,” said Cork. “It allows me to be creative while doing something really neat, those opportunities aren’t very widespread.”
“Every other VR setup of this kind in North America is used for military applications, this is the only 100 per cent non-military installation in Canada and the U.S,” said Cork.
Derek Ledoux, another game student who now works full-time at the lab, is the project’s sound specialist. Not a very common specialty, Ledoux ‘s unique talents are an important part of creating a alternate reality.
“The things you get to do are really cool,” said Ledoux. “With sound design, you can take most anything and and turn it into something else.
So how does a giant 3D video game help treat phobias?
For years psychologists were using exposure therapy to treat patients with phobias, “but it’s like T.V., or watching a scary movie,” said Cork, “when you watch it, you an get a gentle scare, or a thrill, but it’ still just movie, there’s a disconnect.”
“[With the VR environment] people with phobias found the virtual encounters just as effective as real encounters,” said Paquette. “It just has to look like a spider and move like one and the fear will be there.”
Essentially, the job of the students in the lab is to remove that disconnect and make the experience seem real.
One of their current projects is creating a scenario for people with severe problems with mulit-tasking. There’s a fully-furnished virtual apartment with an array of 3D items ranging from telephones, to refrigerators and groceries. Now, it is up to Cork, Ledoux and the rest of the team to bring them all to life.
“I’ll go in and make the telephones work. At first, it just sits there in 3D, I go in and I make it ring and flash, and make it so you can pick it up and put it down. With the fridge I make it open and close and put all the groceries in to it.”
Another recent project, funded by Lotto Quebec, was designed to treat people with gambling addictions. The team created an interactive bar with a row of slot machines at the back, as well as an entire casino.
Another perk of the project is getting to test the product.
“The casino one was fun to do,” said Cork. “At first it was broken and it kept paying out, I ended the day with $250,000.”
The problem with the computers, it seems, is that one tiny mistake can throw everything off. “A one or a zero in the wrong place can cause the whole slot machine to break. In this case, one decimal point was off.”
Cork explains that computers are actually quite dim. “A computer is significantly dumber than a toddler,” said Cork. “We need to use clever tricks to figure out ways to tell a computer how to do things. There’s lots of math. That’s the hardest thing in computer programming, figuring out ways to tell a machine that something is on top something else, or ‘these two things are the same colour’.”
Since the project is funded by the government, there are a lot of really amazing opportunities for the students involved. “We get to do a lot of pretty cool things. I went to the casino to record slot machines, and they just handed me a million dollar card and said ‘here, go record sounds’,” said Ledoux.
“That’s what’s great about working at the lab,” said Cork, “they trust us. They say just come in when you have to, leave when you have to, just get your projects done on time.”
The opportunity is available to other game students, but it takes a lot of hard work. “You really have to speak computer,” said Cork “You don’t have to speak in ones and zeros or anything like that, you’ve got to know how to program. [and Algonquin] gave me a really good foundation.”
The joint project has proved quite beneficial for all parties involved. “Algonquin gets funding, we get experience, and the program is flourishing,” said Cork. “ And we get to play with all the biggest, funnest, most expensive toys.”