The Perception in Action Laboratories at the University of Edinburgh Department of Psychology uses virtual reality primarily as a means of investigating human perception and movement.
The department has a history of psychological research on the perception of visual stimuli associated with motion. In particular, the Edinburgh `swinging room' experiment  is widely known -- the subject stands inside a room in which the walls can be made to swing back and forth, with respect to the observer's fixed viewpoint. Participants quickly lost their ability to balance under such conditions, suggesting that visual information is of primary importance to the perception of body motion.
One way in which VR has been applied is to assess the relative importance of visual stiluli in estimating the rate at which discrete objects approach the observer. In one experiment, the user is instructed to catch a virtual ball as it approaches the head. The system allows specific depth information to be included or omitted, such as the ball's apparent angular size, and/or the effects of binocular disparity. Without a VR-based system, such experimentation would be difficult.
A major research programme is the development of a car driving simulator to assess a user's steering and braking behaviour. VR allows a wide variety of test conditions and speeds to be assessed safely. Experiments are aimed at assessing the user's understanding of visual motion stimuli (both forwards and turning movements) and the ability of the user to act in controlling such motions using braking and steering behaviours.
Another issue under investigation is the (possibly damaging) effects of head-mounted display (HMD) devices on the user's perceptual abilities immediately following the immersion experience. Preliminary results indicate that there is some degradation in (visual) perceptual performance, and that this effect is not simply due to the limited fidelity of current display technologies. These results have caused controversy in some circles, but have recently been supported by subsequent, independent, research carried out by other groups.
The VR laboratory itself is well equipped in comparison with most academic research groups. Both immersive (HMD) and non-immersive VR viewing is supported, the latter being achieved using a large rear-projection screen with Barco projector. Graphics-enhanced PCs are used as image generators, and a selection of 3D interaction devices are also available. One particularly unusual piece of equipment is a (partial) Ford Fiesta car, which is used as a specialised `input device' for investigating driving skills, as described above.
The laboratory personnel include two full-time research associates, two members of academic staff and, approximately fifteen undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Graphics Multimedia Virtual Environments Visualisation Contents