Virtual reality zombies in Berlin
Learning about brain-body relationships
During the summer, I traveled to Berlin to work at the BeMobi Lab, a lab focused on spatial cognition research at the Technical University of Berlin, Germany. Seeing Berlin excited me; it is such a historical city with sites such as the Berlin Wall, and it is one of the radical art hotspots of the world right now. I went to see many art shows and public celebrations, and I hung out with Berlinese in the parks and squares. It was also fantastic to finally see the big lab directed by Professor Klaus Gramann and to meet my German colleagues there.
My most exciting experience was getting to use their virtual reality headset with motion tracking technology and their mobile electroencephalogram imagining cap (EEG). The EEG is a cap full of electrodes that reads electric impulses from the brain. The Bemobi has a special type of EEG cap which allows you to walk while using it. I loved having the opportunity to combine such great technologies together. It is so easy to create new immersive worlds and new architectures with VR. However, the highlight of my summer was using the mobile EEG which allowed me to take a glimpse into other people’s brains while they moved and interacted with space.
To my surprise, the main challenge we faced in our experiments was minimizing how sick people feel after using the VR goggles for too long. A typical young student in perfect health lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, which is nothing for a cognitive experiment — especially for experiments testing perception of space. Participants usually have to wear the EEG cap and perform spatial tasks such as walking on trails — paths testing how perception changes with movement — and need to do several repetitions to get good data. In the spatial experiments that involved moving with a keyboard or control and seeing the space change in VR, none of the participants could stand longer than 20 minutes.
Our brains get lost when our eyes inform us that we are in motion, but our bodies are not moving, which is a problem for static VR. We realized that the trick to designing feasible experiments was to have people move in real space while in VR, so we made people walk, jump, and run around the lab while wearing the VR goggles.
Because my research pertains to how people perceive space while in motion, or human-space interaction as I call it, I thought that analyzing people’s brain activity while they move was important. I turned out to be right, but not for my original reasoning. New designs for the experiments were developed accordingly — no more static experiences, just motion.
In the end, we had our participants acting like zombies. They walked without apparent direction inside a dark room and followed the VR world in their eyes without a clue about what was happening in reality. The VR experience was designed to be an infinite path; controlled by motion tracking, the path disappeared when the “zombie” reached the end of the real space inside the lab. Another path would then appear going in the opposite direction, endlessly.
Zombies walked back and forth, back and forth, in straight trajectories, in zigzag trajectories, or in undulating trajectories. In VR we had high walls, medium-height walls, and short walls, all to make participants react with their bodies to things only their minds could see. Some people were quieter, and others moved strangely in the corners of the zigzags or at the curved walls. Someone had to stay watching them at all times because they were completely disengaged with their actions, like actual zombies.
These zombies, loaded with technological gear, walked for hours and hours while we observed their brain activity. Soon, I’ll get to the point where I can actually analyze this data in order to understand how their reactions were processed by their brains. It was amazing to learn how important the relationship is between brain and body, or so-called embodied cognition. While observing how they moved, I could almost see how they were thinking about the space in VR. In the experiments, it was almost as if we could control their brains. Maybe in some distant or close future we will, and I am glad I got to have a role in this enterprise.
MISTI — MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives — is MIT’s pioneering international education program. Each year nearly 1,000 MIT undergrads and graduate students are matched with hands-on international projects through MISTI. To learn more about internship, teaching and research opportunities across the globe, check out misti.mit.edu.