A virtual world

AP Psychology class visits SMU to observe a VR experiment

Grace Worsham

Senior Jackson Bloomfield throws a right hook into his competitor’s liver, knocking him to his knees before he executes a jab, cross combo — one, two, three KNOCKOUT. The stadium erupts as Bloomfield raises his sore hands in victory. The crowd’s cheers and his racing heart envelope his ears.

Bloomfield pulls off the headset and adjusts his eyes to his kitchen wall. He looks down at his unscathed hands and T-shirt and shorts. It felt so real. It was reality, virtually.

VR has become popular in the gaming and entertainment industry over the past few years. The technology continues to advance and captivate many across the world, incorporating human senses untouched by regular video games.

“I used [VR] during Covid-19 to do boxing virtually online,” Bloomfield said. “I enjoy boxing, and I have a punching bag in my house that I use quite often. My boxing game on VR allows me to put what I practice to use without actually having to go out and box. It allows me to interact and get the full physical activity without actually getting punched.”

Virtual reality is not only used as immersive games, but actual science experiments. The AP Psychology class traveled to Southern Methodist University for a field trip on Nov. 10 being conducted by SMU clinical psychology graduate students. The students cannot release their hypothesis yet, but they want to understand how teens react to common situations with their friends.

“They are doing research on different peer pressure,” Head of Science Department Amy Henderson said. “Kids are mainly counseled on ‘okay these are the type of things you should say,’ which [psychologists] have been doing for years, however, now they think they actually can counsel and imitate it better if you are actually in the situation, and you see your friend next to you pressuring you, because it’s so real. They are seeing if this VR of counseling people in a real-life situation could actually help.”

Students who went on the field trip got to use the VR headset to see what it is like to be peer pressured in a scene. The students also learned about college and graduate school syllabi and the differences between classwork in high school and college, especially at SMU. Senior Jackson Bloomfield, who went on the field trip, said the experiment felt very real.

I honestly feel like VR can take us in so many different ways.

Jamie Nguyen

“I had a simulation of peer pressure, and it felt more real because virtual reality can put you in situations where you can cheat, steal, lie and do other activities that can get you in trouble,” Bloomfield said. “My overall experience was very good because it gave me an opportunity to see how virtual reality can be used as more than a video game.”

VR has a variety of uses in the psychology field, and fifth-year SMU graduate student Jamie Nguyen has participated in a variety of labs relating to VR, including one testing prejudice. In it, participants are put in a situation where they needed to help or talk to someone they had prejudice against. Another lab currently being conducted at SMU is focusing on training surgical skills to people in remote areas.

“They practice it through VR on a whole other continent, and there are several labs out there that are teaching those kinds of skills,” Nguyen said. “I just finished conducting a systematic review on VR projects that help reduce prejudice. When people are put into situations, and they are trying to interact with people they have a prejudice against, they may have to try and build things like empathy or just getting to know the person in VR and that can help reduce their prejudice toward a group of people.”

Nguyen’s dream job is to work for Meta, using VR in ways it has never been done before. She isn’t sure what Mark Zuckerburg, Meta’s CEO, has in plan for the future, but she knows VR can improve ways of life and become an affordable option for clinical work such as therapy.

“I honestly feel like VR can take us in so many different ways,” Nguyen said. “People are [using VR] for therapy for example. Say we are working with a client who is afraid of flying, one of the techniques that has been used a lot in clinical work is called exposure therapy and that’s where you expose a person to their fears in order to help reduce that fear. It is a lot easier and a lot more affordable if you have a clinic that has VR where you can plug them in and put them in that airplane cabin so they are already there versus having to buy a ticket, go through airport security, etc.”

According to Techjury’s website, global VR video gaming revenues reached $22.9 billion in 2020 and 70 percent of VR headset-owning consumers have bought a game on it. Currently, virtual gaming is vastly popular and is becoming the new and improved video game. As with any technology though, there are dangers if used excessively.

“[VR] is kinda like video games,” Henderson said. “People can get sucked into video games, and you feel like you are there. Well, virtual reality takes it so much further than that where you actually really are there, and you can reach out and touch something that’s not really there. Yes, a video game sucks you in, but what you are seeing in virtual reality is real, even though it’s not.”

Any teenager between the ages of 15 to 17 who is interested in participating in the SMU peer pressure experiment can apply to participate in the study by emailing them at vstar@smu.edu or calling them at 214-768-1787. They must have a caregiver’s consent prior to beginning the experiment and follow a series of additional steps.

“The first step is to give our lab a call or an email, then we talk about consent over the phone and that’s to make sure you and your caregiver agree to do the experiment,” fifth-year SMU graduate school student Jamie Nguyen said. “After you both agree we send you both surveys to fill out online and privately. After you complete those surveys you are scheduled to come to our lab. We run through the VR scene, we do some more surveys, and then we also do an interview which is usually with a graduate student. Then after the interview, we give you $70 and your caregiver a $30 Amazon gift card.”

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