Virtual reality at the service of psychology

December 7, 2017, Goethe University Frankfurt am Main
A picture from the SCEGRAM database which shows objects in unusual places. Melissa Vo's research group is investigating how the brain reacts. Credit: Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

Our environment is composed according to certain rules and characteristics that are so obvious that people are scarcely aware of them. Professor Melissa Le-Hoa Vo, psychologist at Goethe University Frankfurt, is studying this "scene knowledge" and other topics of visual cognition in a virtual reality laboratory. In the current issue of the Forschung Frankfurt research journal, journalist Jessica Klapp reports on her virtual trip to Italy and explains why people don't look for the milk under the bed or for our pillow in the bathtub.

"When we search for a specific object in a scene, we seem to have developed a precise idea of where to look for and find certain things," explains Melissa Vo. What she finds particularly interesting in her investigation of these naturalistic scenes is how people perceive the environment. In which circumstances are people especially attentive? And what will they remember later? To find this out, Professor Võ uses eye tracking and virtual reality scenarios in her laboratory, alongside measurement of brain potentials.

"We use eye tracking to measure which parts of a picture the observer finds interesting or important, how fast her gaze settles on specific objects in a scene and how long it dwells there," explains Dr. Dejan Draschkow, a member of Professor Vo's research group.

There is a particularly close relationship between eye movement and cognitive processes. The video-based systems used by the researchers register eye movements with the help of a camera. Head-mounted systems that resemble a pair of spectacles are paired with remote eye trackers installed in a computer monitor, along with a camera and infrared LEDs. With the mobile system, the test participants can move around in the room, search for objects and interact with them.

With the headset, the computer simulates a virtual 3-D world in which the test subject moves about. With simulated settings, such as an Italian piazza in the centre of which brown boxes are unexpectedly floating, the researchers check whether the results identified on two-dimensional monitors are also valid in a realistic, three-dimensional environment. They want to understand which rules people use to compose their environment and interact with the objects in it.

Investigating scene knowledge in children is one of the topics that the research group is tackling in particular depth. The aim of the project is the early detection and treatment of possible cognitive disorders such as dyslexia. Tests are conducted in a mobile laboratory right outside the nursery school: The researchers show children "ungrammatical" pictures, for example, a shoe on the cooker instead of a saucepan, and watch their reactions with the help of an eye-tracking camera. If one of the children in a large group behaves differently, they are interested to see whether there is a correlation between language development and attention behaviour.

Other fields, such as medicine, also benefit from the results. For example, the researchers measured the eye movements of radiologists when studying X-rays and analysed which strategies they use to recognize tumours and how successful these strategies are. The research results are also important for the security control of hand baggage at airports. How do staff decide which baggage needs a more thorough check? Why wasn't a dangerous found?

And finally, people with dementia could also profit from scene knowledge research, since Vo and her team have discovered that the ability to recall pictures in a scene increases if the test subjects have previously looked for and found individual objects. In a surprising memory test, they performed far better than participants who were supposed to memorize objects explicitly. "What this means for us is that in the case of a visual search, there is more interaction with the , and the participants commit objects better to memory," explains Professor Vo.

Explore further: Virtual reality users must learn to use what they see

Related Stories

Virtual reality users must learn to use what they see

December 4, 2017
Anyone with normal vision knows that a ball that seems to quickly be growing larger is probably going to hit them on the nose.

Researchers uncover our brain's filing system for storing experiences

September 27, 2017
A team of neuroscientists has uncovered how our brains organize, over time, our experiences: that is, according to their similarities.

Researchers compare the performance of human subjects versus deep neural networks in visual searches

September 27, 2017
Before you read on, look for toothbrushes in the photo above. Find them? Both of them? If you're like the vast majority of people, you honed in on the one near the sink, but probably took a moment or two before seeing the ...

Overturning widely held ideas: Visual attention drawn to meaning, not what stands out

September 25, 2017
Our visual attention is drawn to parts of a scene that have meaning, rather than to those that are salient or "stick out," according to new research from the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis. ...

Recommended for you

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018
The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new ...

Major traumatic injury increases risk of mental health diagnoses, suicide

November 12, 2018
People who experience major injuries requiring hospital admission, such as car crashes and falls, are at substantially increased risk of being admitted to hospital for mental health disorders, found a study in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Nearly one in ten Americans struggles to control sexual urges

November 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Dec 07, 2017
...explains why people don't look for the milk under the bed or for our pillow in the bathtub.


The author has obviously never seen a college student's dorm or apartment ...

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.