VR tool re-creates hallucinations

By Kimberly Patch, Technology Research News

Reality can seem different depending on who you are.

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia have written software designed to allow psychiatrists to gain an understanding of the reality of patient hallucinations. "The idea is to get [medical students] to understand what it is like from the patient's point of view," said Geoffery Ericksson, the research fellow at the University of Queensland.

This is needed, Ericsson said. In a survey conducted by fellow researcher Jennifer Tichon, students said they could adequately diagnose mental illnesses like schizophrenia that include hallucinations, but said they didn't really understand what it was they were diagnosing.

The hallucination simulation software is a three-dimensional environment something like the game Quake, said Ericsson. The researchers interviewed a patient to get descriptions of a set of real-life hallucinations, then depicted them in the software.

In addition to providing doctors with the means to better understand patient hallucinations, such software can be used in cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches people to learn to ignore some of their hallucinations, said Ericsson. Virtual reality systems have also been used to help phobics deal with their fears, including the fear of flying.

The key to the project is that good quality graphics hardware and memory have finally become inexpensive enough to make it possible to create a virtual environment on a personal computer in real-time, said Ericsson.

The environment is a model of a psychiatric ward. "As the user navigates through the ward, hallucinations occur," said Ericsson.

The researchers used photographs of room layouts and equipment from a local psychiatric unit to build the virtual reality model. They also used photographs to generate textures of wall and floor coverings. The prototype software runs on a university virtual reality system that includes three projectors and a 9-meters-wide by and 2.5-meters-high screen curved to provide a 150-degree field of view.

The user is able to navigate around the environment using a mouse and keyboard, and can trigger hallucinations via hotkeys or clicking. Hallucinations also automatically occur when the user gets near certain objects.

Visual hallucinations include an abyss appearing where the floor should be, random flashes of light, the user's image in a mirror getting thinner and bleeding from the eyes, and an initially comforting but increasingly abusive Virgin Mary. Abusive voices that say things like "you're worthless" and "go and kill yourself" start at random and [in] proximity to items such as stereos and televisions. These occur simultaneously, giving the effect of many different sounds and voices interjecting and occurring simultaneously, according to Jorgensen.

The technical challenge to creating the virtual psychiatric ward was finding a scenegraph that achieved high enough frame rates to make the model realistic enough, said Ericsson. Scenegraphs are hierarchical structures that three-dimensional graphics programs use to store the three-dimensional model.

When the researchers showed the patient the virtual environment, she deemed it effective in re-creating the emotions she experienced during her psychotic episodes, according to Ericsson.

One surprising result came out of the initial prototype, said Ericsson. "The hallucinations are repetitive -- they say the same thing over and over again, unlike the portrayal presented in movies like A Beautiful Mind, he said.

The researchers' next step is to increase their library of hallucinations by interviewing more patients. Eventually the software will have enough fodder that clinicians will be able to re-create the hallucinations of a particular patient by simply piecing together existing hallucinations from the library, said Ericsson. The researchers are also looking to begin critical trials to test the software's utility in cognitive behavioral therapy.

The software will be used this year as a part of teaching courses, said Ericsson. If subsequent studies show that virtual reality is helpful in cognitive behavioral therapy, a commercial tool could be ready within five years, and widely available in 20 years, said Ericsson.

Ericksson's research colleagues were Jasmine Banks, Kevin Burrage, Peter Yellowlees, Sean Ivermee and Jennifer Tichon. The work appeared in the January, 2004 issue of the Journal of Network and Computer Applications. The research was funded by Eli Lilly Australia and from the Schizophrenia Fellowship of Southeast Queensland.

Timeline:  5 years, 20 years
Funding:   Corporate, Institute
TRN Categories:  Applied Technology; Human-Computer Interaction
Story Type:   News
Related Elements:  Technical paper, "Constructing the Hallucinations of Psychosis in Virtual Reality," Journal of Network and Computer Applications, January, 2004


June 16/23, 2004

Page One

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