VR and Eye Gaze Tracking in Autism Research

Fascinating overview of research into social difficulties in Autism, and the use of Virtual Reality in those efforts. Animated characters and VR headsets allow for a great level of control in research studies, including isolating and eliminating variables to get closer to the root of a problem. And the safe space afforded by simulations could lead to more people with Autism getting involved with the research itself.

As the researchers, Nathan Caruna and John Brock, wrote on Spectrum:

We need tests that allow us to precisely measure behavior in complex, reciprocal social interactions. To achieve this goal, we and others are investigating the use of virtual-reality technology as a tool for research and, potentially, therapy.

So far, so good – on several fronts:

Using these technologies, we have confirmed that problems with joint attention—the ability to coordinate with someone else so that you are both paying attention to the same thing—persist into adulthood. We’ve also gained important insights about the roots of these problems. We also hope that adults with autism can one day practice their social skills within specially designed virtual environments.

In our research so far, participants have interacted with a virtual character on a computer screen. The next step is to use fully immersive virtual-reality headsets to recreate more realistic social interactions, in which individuals must evaluate multiple social cues at once, including eye gaze, head orientation, hand gestures, speech and facial expressions.

We, among others, are also considering clinical applications of new immersive virtual-reality technologies. Virtual simulations could perhaps be used for social-skills training in which elements of a social interaction are introduced gradually. Virtual meeting spaces could also allow people with and without autism to interact in a safe and controlled environment that reduces anxiety and sensory overload.

The possibilities for VR in healthcare are just immense right now.

(via Scientific American)