Virtually healthy: 'CAVE' lets researchers experience patients' behavior

December 5, 2012 by Christie Taylor
Wearing 3-D eyeglasses and holding a virtual-reality controller, Patricia Flatley Brennan steps into a room-sized, computer-generated version of a bathroom and interacts with medicine cabinet items and other moveable objects to simulate how patients self-administer health care at home. Credit: Jeff Miller

(Medical Xpress)—The majority of health care takes place not in hospitals and clinics overseen by medical professionals, but in the home.

Every day, patients take prescription medications, monitor vital signs or , and even administer their own preventative care in the form of exercise and diet choices. It's important for to understand how their patients actually perform these activities—yet do so without invading patients' privacy.

Virtual reality makes that goal a reality.

Tucked away in a deep corner of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, the "CAVE" gives Patricia Flatley Brennan, the Moehlman-Bascom Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Nursing, virtual access to what life is like in a patient's home.

Housed in Brennan's Living Environments Laboratory, the CAVE (Cave ) uses a series of projectors in a cube-shaped room to create virtually any space imaginable. A kitchen, a bathroom, and other home settings are shown. There's also an interactive operating room. The CAVE is an immersive, experiential world in which researchers and test subjects can turn faucets on and off—and hear the sound of water. Pill bottles rattle when shaken. Door and cabinet hinges squeak. Outside the kitchen window is a stunning, lifelike view of Niagara Falls.

It's the perfect place to simulate and test at- situations and processes. For example, many diabetics measure their using a glucometer—a small, inconspicuous device. In a home environment, such as a teenager's bathroom, clutter might make it difficult to find when needed. Medicine bottles themselves might need a redesign: In hospitals, they make sense, but what if a patient's medicine cabinet has very narrow shelves? The bottles tip and fall easily. And, says Brennan, "People think that patients sit down at tables when they do paperwork. They don't. They sit at kitchen counters." 

Besides addressing these more practical problems, one of Brennan's projects involves the science of imagination: How can visual cues in the home stimulate people to take better care of themselves—for example, by quitting smoking or exercising? "Think of yourself on a gray day: Things are closing in, buildings look a different color," she says. "Then think of yourself on a sunny day."

Rather than focus on ceasing an activity, Brennan says, it's better to understand why a harmful behavior is meaningful to a person. "Do I smoke because I'm awkward in social situations," she says, "or do I live in a place where there are no extra activities so I tend to eat more? What need is this behavior responding to?"

Collaborating with colleagues that include renowned UW–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Brennan is studying ways to stimulate changes in the brain to help people more effortlessly make healthier choices. "We could expand their skillset of being able to imagine situations and be creative in their problem solving," she says. "Imagination also has the capability of helping people figure out what's important to them, so it may help them redefine problems."

In the CAVE, Brennan can measure whether an imagination-stimulating experience has an effect on brain patterns that ward off distress or unhealthy desires, like the desire to light up a cigarette. "Then we'll look at what visual cues we can place in clinical or neighborhood settings that might perform that same kind of stimulation," Brennan says.

And, she says, by cultivating people's imagination with visual cues, designers of homes, neighborhoods and clinics could develop patients' ability to avoid health-threatening behaviors and to choose health-promoting behaviors.

The CAVE could lead to other breakthroughs in areas where hands-on research in healthcare settings is either prohibitively expensive, or limited by privacy concerns. For example, one student is using the CAVE to investigate the logistics of how best to organize supplies in operating rooms. Another researcher is testing a display that gives nutrition information to users when they look at food—a tool that could be especially invaluable for diabetics and people with food allergies.

Brennan says the sky's the limit. "In the CAVE, we can experience these things," she says. "Almost anything we dream, we can actually make."

Explore further: Scientists developing breast cancer treatment test

Related Stories

Scientists developing breast cancer treatment test

January 23, 2012
University of Manchester scientists are developing a test that will help identify patients who will benefit from a new breast cancer treatment, thanks to a research grant worth almost £180,000 from Breast Cancer Campaign.

Recommended for you

High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause mental health problems in offspring

July 21, 2017
A high-fat diet not only creates health problems for expectant mothers, but new research in an animal model suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of their offspring and has a long-term impact ...

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Why sugary drinks and protein-rich meals don't go well together

July 20, 2017
Having a sugar-sweetened drink with a high-protein meal may negatively affect energy balance, alter food preferences and cause the body to store more fat, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Nutrition.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.