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Technology meets psychology

Imagine a restless 14-year-old confined to a hospital bed for a month or two while undergoing cancer treatment.

To alleviate her pain, anxiety and boredom, she pops on a virtual reality headset and “wanders” along a beach in California. She even snaps a few pictures of her computer-generated getaway and later shares them on social media.

That’s just one of the potential applications for the technology-meets-psychology research Tony Chaston is doing at the virtual reality (VR) lab, part of the new Centre for Psychological Innovation at Mount Royal University.

Chaston is collaborating with Avatar Media, an Edmonton company that produces 3D and VR media content, to investigate how being immersed in a VR experience might lower anxiety and pain, and thereby help patients through extended hospital stays. 


Psychology student Josh Stewart dons the VR goggles as part of his honours thesis research.

Experiential learning is a big part of the VR lab. Psychology student Josh Stewart is doing his honours thesis research on the Avatar Media Collaboration project — conducting VR experience testing and helping to develop analysis methods, questionnaires and techniques. Five or six assistants will help with the research and get hands-on experience. And third-year students in Chaston’s Sensation and Perception (PSYC 3369) course will get a chance to try out VR themselves and then write about it.

The project uses Avatar’s 360-degree footage of various natural environments: a mountain lake in Jasper, that beach in California, a Japanese meditation garden, an aquarium in San Diego.

“Natural environments really lower anxiety levels,” explains Chaston, professor and assistant chair in the Department of Psychology. “We have people come into the lab, we test their anxiety level using a standard psychology test, we drop them into the VR experience and then we test their anxiety right after.”

At this early stage of the project, the goal is to learn how to reliably and validly measure a VR experience and to find candidates for VR experiences to be used in later stages of the research. Chaston hopes the outcome is a valid, standardized test for gaming companies or academics. One day, it might even form the basis of a smart phone app to help stressed-out students before exams.

Opening in late November, the Centre for Psychological Innovation will feature other leading-edge technologies, including 360º treadmills, one-way glass observation rooms and more. Students will be able to observe familial dynamics in the child and family lab, collect audio and video data and get even more work experience with faculty in their studies.