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Students create game to help acrophobes confront their fear of heights in virtual reality

Muhammad Hussain plays a virtual reality rock-climbing game in the Virtual Reality Lab, part of the iSchool at the University of Washington (Photo courtesy Vriti Wadhwa).

For people afraid of heights, leaning over a wall when rock climbing could cause feelings of terror and nausea. Being attached to ropes when climbing is not always reassuring for an acrophobe.

But perhaps experiencing similar conditions in virtual reality — with two feet on the ground — could help people overcome those fears.

That’s the theory of six University of Washington students, who have developed a virtual reality (VR) rock climbing game to study how users experience the fear of heights. The game has the potential to help researchers analyze how virtual reality can possibly find solutions for patients with other phobias.

“This game was part of our final project for our immersive environments class at UW,” said lead storyteller and designer Sanjana Galgalikar. “We wanted to create something that was a challenge but also feasible as a project within the three-week span that we had to work on it.”

To create the game, the team used a game-making software called Unity. Unity is a game-making application that allows for the creation of different plug-ins and functions such as graphics, sounds, and animations. Unlike other game creators, Unity makes it easy to write codes for characters, object behavior, and environment without complicated and multi-layered processes. The application is considered more progressive as it allows for games to be published on multiple platforms, whether for consoles, desktops, or mobile.

The team went through a step-by-step process to create a user flow outline and storyline for the rock climbing game, plan out the different game levels, and then apply it to the Unity software. They then self-coded the logistics of the game through C#, a multi-purpose programming language, to bring in the different elements altogether.

The game is to be played with an HTC Headset and Vive remote control in order for users to experience the immersive virtual reality game (Image courtesy Vriti Wadhwa).

The element of virtual reality technology allows for a computer-generated environment that consists of 3D images, sound experiences, and sensory stimuli for users.

“Most of the participants said it was really immersive, in the sense that they were actually feeling like they were climbing a mountain,” said project developer and video producer Jeewon Ha.

The game incorporates three levels of rock climbing, increasing in difficulty. The first level is a simple procedure of climbing from one block to another without being stuck in one place. The second level includes different elevations and mountains to climb through, making it easier for the user to fall down. The third level involves challenging swinging techniques needed to reach to the top of the climbing wall.

“The gap between level two and three was so big that barely anyone passed through level three,” said Ha.

The general control system of the game was an important element needed to create a realistic setting. The interaction between the controllers and content on the screen needed to be well-coordinated.

“I created the general controls in the game,” said game designer Muhammad Hussain. “The trigger on the handle allows you to pick up an object, or hold yourself onto the rocks of the wall.”

The game even includes a teleportation feature, which allows the user to fly to different rock climbing walls in the area, simply by moving the arms in a swinging-like momentum. Once a user is no longer able to grab onto the rocks, they feel the sensation of falling down, which ends the game.

Behind the scenes of game-creating software Unity (gray panels on the side), where designers can drag and drop components into the virtual world, and change dimensions of objects accordingly. (Image courtesy Sanjana Galgalikar).

Testing out features with users has allowed the team to analyze reactions to the intense environment they created. Several participants felt frightened when they looked down from a high elevation or reacted audibly when falling down.

“In our user testing, we tried to reduce as many negative user experiences as possible,” Galgalikar said. “We added a layer of vignette (darkening the corners of a visual element) to ease the side effects of falling down.”

The team experimented with a virtual element called six degrees of freedom, which refers to stimulated capability given to the body to move in different directions. This makes the experience more realistic for users.

Virtual reality has been used in phobia-related research before. Dr. Hunter Hoffman, Director of the Virtual Reality Research Center at the Human Photonics Lab at the University of Washington has done extensive research on how virtual reality can treat pain and phobia.

“Most people avoid the thing they’re afraid of,” Hoffman said. “The nice thing about virtual reality is that people are more willing to go closer to their fears.”

In his research, Hoffman used virtual reality to study people with arachnophobia, fear of spiders. His work allowed him to see how the virtual world could help people confront their fears.

“The ability to customize the experience for each individual patient is what makes the process a lot more effective,” Hoffman said. “In theory, virtual reality makes it a lot easier to change the program accordingly.”

Hoffman isn’t the only scientist studying VR as a treatment for phobias. Virtually Better is a company that sells virtual reality-related research to psychologists for further analysis or use in studies.

“Therapists use experiences like this to help with phobia of heights, water, and other exposure therapies,” Hussain said. “When you think of immersive experiences, you think of virtual reality. It kind of speaks for itself.”

The team of students has already presented their work at the AT&T VR Hackathon in Bellevue, Wash. and now hopes to take their game to even more competitions and hackathons down the line.

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