Virtual reality: ‘Make the world as you like it’

| Michaela Nesvarova

For most of us, the term virtual reality (VR) sparks excitement. While the use of VR for entertainment has surely found its place in our world, the technology has much larger potential: for training, therapy and research. Many scientists at the University of Twente are exploring these serious applications. In their hands, VR becomes a tool to overcome addiction, to conduct experimental research in criminology and to treat psychiatric patients.

Photo by: RIKKERT HARINK

Experts at the UT use virtual reality for a wide range of projects, but they all agree on one thing: VR should never be the goal in itself. It should be a useful tool. For the user, it should be a way to visualize and fully grasp the consequences of their decisions. To experts, including scientists and therapists, it can offer something unavailable before: a chance to directly observe (and consequently shape) people’s behavior in a controlled and safe setting.

Virtual Burglary

This opens up a world of possibilities, believes researcher Iris van Sintemaartensdijk. ‘Experimental research in criminology was not possible before VR,’ says the PhD candidate involved in the Virtual Burglary Project. ‘I’m a psychologist with focus on criminology. I study how guardianship, meaning presence of people, influences burglars. Until now, we could search for patterns, such as which houses are targeted. We could also interview the burglars and ask what they did and why. However, they are not always completely truthful and our memory is also not perfect. VR now gives us the opportunity to bypass these issues. We can directly observe the burglars’ behavior and be in full control of the experiment.’

 ‘We ask burglars to scout the area as if they wanted to burglar a house’

Because of that, Van Sintemaartensdijk has spent a lot of time in prisons across the Netherlands. She has worked with 181 convicted burglars, all of whom have completed an experiment using a special VR application developed for the project. ‘We have created two virtual neighborhoods and asked the burglars to scout the area as if they wanted to burglar a house. We could then observe their behavior, see exactly where and when they stop, where and how they walk and so on.’

Still from the Virtual Burglary application. 

This leads to insights that researchers could otherwise not gain. ‘VR offers us the closest possible approximation of the real world. Once the criminals are in the VR environment, their normal behavior is activated and so we can see what influences their decisions,’ says Van Sintemaartensdijk. ‘For example, we can manipulate the environment by adding signs with warnings against a neighborhood watch and we add avatars. Once we understand the burglars’ thinking patterns, we can hopefully prevent crimes.’

Triggers and helpers

Preventing crimes and other incidents is also a goal of research by Hanneke Kip. At the UT and at Transfore, an organization for forensic mental healthcare, this PhD candidate works with psychiatric patients who have committed aggressive or sexual offenses. During her research on eHealth in forensic mental healthcare, she found VR to be a good fit for these patients. ‘There are already a lot of e-health solutions out there, but they don’t seem to work that well,’ says Kip. ‘They are often web-based platforms and self-study materials. However, patients are not very motivated to use them. Moreover, patients are often low educated and don’t have much experience with homework or working on self-improvement. It is difficult for them to reflect on their own thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We therefore interviewed patients and therapists to see what would be the best approach. The general response was that it would be truly helpful for patients to not only talk, but to actually do. Which is why we believe that VR could be of true added value.’

In close collaboration with patients and healthcare professionals, Kip is developing a VR application called Triggers and Helpers. ‘We want to figure out what the patients’ triggers are, what causes their aggressive outbursts. For example, VR can be used for virtual roleplay, where the therapist can be present as an avatar and try to trigger the patient. Since triggers are very personal and different for everyone, the application will be customizable. We will be able to personalize the environment, the people involved and the triggers. This way we can build fully personalized VR scenarios and teach the patients self-control, teach them how to regulate their emotions. For example, if a patient has history of domestic violence, we can put them in a living room with an avatar that looks like their partner. We can put in noises, such as a barking dog or a loud TV, and we can have the avatar say things that the patient finds annoying.’

‘We can teach patients to regulate their emotions’

The scientist believes that this approach can be of much added value for existing treatment. ‘It will allow us to do things that normal “talking therapy” doesn’t,’ says Kip. ‘You can ask the patients why they became angry, but it can be difficult for them to explain. Using VR, the therapist can directly observe the behavior. For the patients, it can help them regulate emotions in situations that are specifically difficult for them. If we train them how to react in VR environment, we hope they also behave that way in real life. The main goal is to prevent reoffending, to stop them from committing assaults.’

Addiction treatment

Offering a safe environment to train coping mechanisms is indeed a big advantage of VR – and the reason why UT researchers Randy Klaassen and Simon Langener aim to apply virtual reality in addiction treatment. In collaboration with an addiction treatment center Tactus, they want to use the technology to treat alcohol, cannabis and nicotine addictions.

‘They can directly experience the results of their actions’

‘Our target group are people with mild intellectual disability, with IQ in the range 52-75,’ explains Klaassen. ‘For this group it is very difficult to reflect on their behavior. We believe expressive technology can help them, because it is about doing not talking. They can directly experience the results of their actions in a controlled and safe environment.’ The VR scenario has been designed to resemble a typical town and can be personalized to the needs of every patient. ‘The treatment is about breaking a person’s habits and those are linked to specific environment and objects,’ says Klaassen. ‘For example, some people only smoke at home, some drink only one brand of beer or smoke certain cigarettes.’

‘The objective is to teach the clients self-control techniques,’ says Langener. ‘They can practice recognizing the craving and train self-control, for example by walking away from a bar and going into a park instead. It can also help train them in social interaction, because resisting social pressure is a big issue for them. In the VR environment they can interact with social agents and learn some coping mechanisms. The big potential of VR lies in this direct experience, in doing instead of talking.’

VR: nothing new?

Although the use VR in serious applications is gaining momentum, the implementation in real clinical practice is still a challenge – partly due to the costs and time needed to develop the technology. However, there are already fields where virtual reality is commonplace, says Roy Damgrave from the UT’s VR Lab. ‘VR is actually quite an old field. The first idea is from the 1960’s and the first VR headset was developed in 1965. Even though most VR glasses were developed thanks to the gaming industry, VR technology also has a long history in military, where it was developed for training purposes and where it is commonly used.’

The VR Lab on campus is not the place for military or gaming applications, though. It is most frequently used by the industry. ‘For example, we quite often get requests related to the layout of a factory,’ says Damgrave. ‘We visualize the potential layout in VR, so that you can walk around, interact with the environment, with the machinery. We use VR as a tool to make information more accessible. It is certainly a lot more than just the goggles. We see it as a tool to visualize data – data that you might already have and would like to use for decision making.’

‘We see it as a tool to visualize data’

For these purposes, virtual reality certainly isn’t sci-fi. ‘It is already common in some industries, such as car manufacturing. Manufacturers use it to review designs and understand the implications of various changes,’ says Damgrave. ‘It is easier to use VR in industry than in other fields, because it is more beneficial only if you have sufficient data that you need visualized. In industry, the data often already exists and the causes and effects of changes are clear. That is the difference between industry use and healthcare use, for example.’

In which fields will VR turn into an everyday occurrence remains open, but the researchers agree it is likely to become more prominent in the world, especially in training of various skills and behavior. On top of its practical value, virtual reality has a certain appeal that cannot be matched by other technologies. As Roy Damgrave puts it: ‘VR allows you to be in another world without the hassle of actually having to go there. It allows you to make the world as you like it.’

Researchers featured in the article:

  • Iris van Sintemaartensdijk, PhD researcher at the Psychology of Conflict, Risk and Safety group (BMS Faculty)
  • Hanneke Kip, PhD researcher at the Department of Psychology, Health & Technology (BMS Faculty)
  • Roy Damgrave, Assistant Professor at the Department of Design, Production and Management (ET Faculty) & the head of the VR Lab
  • Randy Klaassen, Assistant Professor at the Human Media Interaction group (EEMCS Faculty)
  • Simon Langener, PhD researcher at the Human Media Interaction group (EEMCS Faculty)