The use of Virtual-Reality for Studying and Training
In this edition of the Edify Fireside Chat we were joined by Dr. Tom Arthur, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter to talk about using virtual reality (VR) to study how people learn tasks that require sensorimotor control. Originally a sports scientist who worked with sports teams locally and nationally to train movement-based skills, Tom Arthur went into academia and has recently gained his PhD from the University of Exeter. His thesis researched using VR to understand how Autistic people learn sensorimotor skills.
So, what is sensorimotor control? Sensorimotor control is a highly complex biofeedback system but put very simply, it’s how the brain processes feedback from the body’s sensory organs such as the eyes and ears during movement, and how it integrates that feedback into the body’s motions and actions.
It has always been particularly hard to train sensorimotor skills in VR, but the technology necessary to do so is improving rapidly. Motion tracking technology has matured, and the development of eye tracking techniques has made collecting feedback much easier. In addition to this, VR environments have become more realistic and more immersive, making training more effective. The Virtual Immersive Training and Learning (VITAL) group at Exeter, which Tom Arthur is a part of, uses these improved immersive technologies to research everything from sports science to stroke recovery and new therapies for Parkinson’s.
Tom’s PhD research focused on interceptive skills, how the brain perceives and reacts to moving objects, using tennis to test these skills. Pro tennis players can hit a ball at speeds that approach 100km per hour—the interceptive skills that are necessary to play tennis at this level can often seem impossible. Over the course of his PhD, Tom created a research paradigm for understanding the set of incredibly complex sensorimotor skills that tennis requires.
VR played a vital role in creating this research paradigm, making it easier to run experiments and control every variable in these experiments, and to gain the detailed feedback on participants’ motions and eye movements.
The experiment required participants to hit an incoming tennis ball. The key variable was how bouncy the ball was, which affected where the ball would travel after it bounced. The experiment found that all participants tried to predict where the ball would go—their eyes didn’t track the ball but moved ahead of it, and their hands would adjust accordingly. All the participants adjusted their predictions based on how the bounciness of the ball varied from shot to shot, but the experiment’s Autistic participants reacted differently to neurotypical participants. Overall, Autistic participants had a harder time with less predictable environments than neurotypical participants did.
Tom draws four conclusions from the data he gathered. The first is that predictions are key to sensorimotor skills; the second that these are context-sensitive; the third is that Autistic people struggle with sensorimotor skills in volatile environments and, finally, that Autistic people tend to interact with the world like it’s highly volatile or uncertain.
Since graduating, he has applied his research in practical settings both as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Exeter and working with Cineon. One application has been using hand- and eye-tracking to help train pilots in VR. He puts pilots in virtual cockpits and asks them to react to safety-critical scenarios, tracking the pilots’ responses and modelling how the pilots process information in that scenario. He found that experienced pilots are more efficient at gathering information from the array of different screens and lights and alarms in an aeroplane’s cockpit, and actively search for information while new pilots tend to be more reactive. He’s also been using his research in military settings.
Tom’s research shows that VR technology can be used to teach sensorimotor skills and that the scope for detailed feedback that VR training offers is vital in iterating and improving training. His research shows that the next generation of pilots and tennis pros could incorporate VR into their training using tools like Edify.
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Curious about how you could leverage virtual reality to enhance learning outcomes? Find out more about how we partner with universities on our dedicated higher education page.