Neuroscience Professor to Study Senses Using Omni, Oculus Rift

Dyani Sabin

Though Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Leslie Kwakye may research virtual reality, the implications of her work are very real. Kwakye is interested in studying multisensory integration by combining information from different sensory modalities through the use of the Virtuix Omni and Oculus Rift, two new virtual reality devices.

Sensory modalities are commonly known as things like sight, smell, touch, sound, taste and “self motion,” or the feeling of how you are moving. By looking at how people combine these different sensory systems, Kwakye is trying to discover how the brain combines diverse information into the seamless experience of perception.

The classic study of this question is simple: Occasionally a circle will flash on a screen and the participant will hear a burst of white noise. Researchers ask participants to press a button as fast as they can when they notice either stimulus.

“When [the stimuli are] together, you’re much faster [to respond] than when they’re presented separately, so there’s a benefit in terms of how quickly you would detect a stimulus when it’s presented in more than one modality,” Kwakye said.

However, a test on a computer screen is nothing like the complicated real world. Kwakye and her lab, including College fourth-year Hudson Bailey and College third-year Luke Burrows, plan to simulate this complexity using virtual reality and the Omni.

The Omni, roughly 5 feet in diameter with a strut and harness system about 4 feet tall, is an “omnidirectional” treadmill created for virtual reality gaming.

The user can move in any direction while standing on the Omni. Its surface is concave, which allows for a more natural-feeling stride in all directions. As the user walks, their feet will slide back to the center — a function made possible in part by the low-friction shoes users wear.

For the gamer, the Omni is an expensive system, running at $699 for pre-order on the Virtuix website. However, for a piece of research equipment, the roughly $1000 Kwakye spent for the system, a variety of shoes and harnesses is relatively inexpensive.

The Omni will be used in combination with a code created by Bailey which will bring these virtual realities to life. “I don’t really think of what I’m doing as creating virtual realities, though,” Bailey said. “I think of it more as creating physical realities.”

Unlike the games the Omni was created for, Bailey’s world will provide information about physical reality, and the complex experience the machine provides will add a physical dimension to the program Bailey creates.

The lab has done work varying the complexity of the environment to see how that changes the multisensory integration. By using a more complex virtual reality, they can add a new layer of complexity to their experiments.

“There are some virtual reality theorists who write about something called ‘presence theory,’ and how experiencing ‘feeling there’ in an environment requires some sort of way of interacting with that environment, which the Omni would definitely do better than just a headset,” he said. “As it is a sensory lab, we might code something where there would be some sort of discrepancy between how it feels and looks or sounds like you’re moving. I think having it in our lab would get people pretty psyched.”

By combining an Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset and the walking sensation on the Omni, the lab will be able to examine the relationship between vision and proprioception, the physical sense of moving.

For example, the Oculus Rift can manipulate the virtual world to move faster or slower as the user walks around. By watching the world go by, users are able to recognize the distance they have traveled.

The Omni also provides a second set of sensations: the physical stride of the user. Participants will have to estimate the distance they travel, and the lab will be able to analyze the results to see if subjects relied more on their vision or on their “leg-sense” to determine the measurement.

Through these experiments, Kwakye hopes to see how the realism of an environment affects the sensation one feels within it.

“[We hope] to see if what we know about multisensory integration breaks down with varying degrees of realism,” Kwakye said.

However, these experiments have been delayed by the late delivery of the Omni, which was originally scheduled to be released in August 2014. Although Kwakye and her lab expected it this February, Virtuix told them this week that delivery will be delayed for at least another month.

“The Omni has yet to arrive, and I have a feeling it won’t be here for a while,” Burrows said.