In science, we are trained to interpret reality through experimentation. What we see is not necessarily what is, depending on controls, variables, and background knowledge. So you would think that, as a skeptical scientist, I would be less susceptible to the mind-bending effect of virtual reality (VR).
The first time I tried VR was in my friend’s basement. He had the works. There were sensors all over the room, computer monitors glowing bright with VR apps, wires hanging from the ceiling, walls, and maybe even the floors—I lost track of what connected to where. I couldn’t imagine that a pair of fighter-pilot-looking scuba goggles with earphones could possibly transport me to another reality. But oh boy, was I wrong.
From the moment I entered the VR world, I was no longer in a basement. I was in an elevator ascending slowly to the top floor of a skyscraper building. The doors opened, and I could hear the wind, birds, and hustle and bustle of a city below. Lacking an innate fear of heights, I walked out onto a plank protruding from the elevator door, fifty stories high, proud of myself that I tackled it with ease. But then my friend, knowing all-too-well the power of VR, gave a single command, “Jump.”
Now bear in mind, I could still feel carpet under my feet. I could hear my friends giggling behind me as I stood, paralyzed in place, unwilling to move even an inch. No matter how many times I reminded myself that I was standing on a floor, not a plank, I couldn’t jump. By this point, giggles had turned to laughter, and my intentions to leap were immediately thwarted by my brain’s overriding will to survive, keeping my feet firmly planted in place.
After at least ten minutes, and with several assurances from my friends that I was NOT going to fall to my death, I managed to jump. Rather than the expected gravity-assisted plummet, I smoothly descended toward the ground, where my brain tricked me once more with a slight stomach lurch upon landing. I was forever convinced that VR can provide something more than novelty. It. Feels. Real.
Now imagine that instead of an elevator, you’re standing in the center of a cell with proteins lit up in a colorful display that can be spun, enlarged, and explored from any angle. Forget clicking through confocal slides, or trying to assess a three-dimensional structure on a computer screen. You can, in a virtual environment, stand in the middle of the cell and look out. With VR, you are limited no longer to the confines of physics. Shrinking to the size of a molecule is as simple as swiping your arm to the right, and trust me, it feels real.
The possibilities of VR use in research are extensive, but also complex. Biovisualization expert Jeremy Swan covers several topics on VR for our annual arts issue this month. In particular, he discusses privacy concerns, the incorporation of VR into mental health therapies, and an exciting use of VR for studying brain biology, based in the Burgess lab. And after Jeremy’s VR update, don’t forget to check out our regular columns, including Suna Gulay’s Rep Report, our welcome to new fellows, and the December Announcements and Events!
Throughout the coming year, we’d love to hear about your adventures with VR in the lab. We encourage you to share your work with the NICHD community so that others may benefit from new ideas about how to incorporate this quickly progressing technology into their own studies. Give it a try, you might be surprised just how much you can learn about reality virtually.
Your Editor in Chief,
Shana R. Spindler, PhD
Please send submissions, comments, and questions to our editor at Shana.Spindler@gmail.com. We always welcome feedback and new ideas!