Reprinted from American Laboratory Magazine

Virtually Here – Don’t Look Back —

At the 2-15 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting I came across two companies with offerings in the virtual reality category. In 2016, my informal survey netted five. Still, online searches using the terms research and virtual reality net a lot of returns on research into VR and very few on research using VR.

But more important than the fact that five companies were presenting VR products was the that each was doing something different with it, they all thought various niches within the sciences were worth an investment and they were all providing value. Whether any of these early entries will be around in a few years only time will tell, but I think it is safe to say the door is open. I’m not sure products as pedestrian as Google Cardboard will be used in high end VR applications (and I’m not sure they won’t be), I think it’s safe to say that the hardware will improve in all facets, the software will run better, and the costs for both will come down. But the basic issues with delivering realistic video without breaks, without the artifacts that cause unpleasant physical symptoms, etc., have all been worked out, and at a reasonable price point. The door is open, come on in.

Arivis is a software company with headquarters in Munich and there InViewR is a very cool product. Deeply immersive experience allow free navigation using hand gestures to travel through data sets derived using light-sheet, confocal or electron microscopy or computer or magnetic-resonance tomography. According to the company, displaying image data in a VR environment restores the context of tissues and interconnected structures. Direct Volume Rendering technique allocates every single data point of the original 3D images to a voxel (basically a three dimensional pixel) within the rendered object. The user can move freely and inspect the specimen from any angle and position without limitations. This also implies that measurements within a volume, verification of co-localizations or following structures in 4D space are possible. But the best way to understand this is to view a (sorry, 2D) video at:

Conducting behavioral research in a virtual environment offers a variety of benefits, an important being the removal of stress, which in turn allows using human subjects. The Virtual Morris Water Maze is executed using an HVS Image VR system which include an Oculus Rift headset, mouse style hand controllers, an HVS Image 2-D treadmill and special software modules to display and record subject behavior. Experiments include but are not limited to animal and human equivalents of: Morris Water Maze, Open Field Test, Novel Object Recognition, Multi-Arm Mazes such as T, Y, Elevated Plus and Radial Arm Maze, Porsolt Forced Swim Test, Barnes Maze, Dry Water Maze, Any experiment, established or new, for which you wish to monitor and analyze position, movement or activity, with subjects of any size, from fruit flies to rodents to humans to large animals.

WorldViz (Santa Barbara, Calif.) offers a complete hardware and software solution that allows users to create virtual reality, or virtually real, environments. Seated VR systems are offered, which is only worth noting because standing and walking products are available too. Want to design a lab? Walk through the allotted space, pick up and reorient casework and apparatus, etc. True freedom of movement is offered and users can navigate and interact at scale. (Take a stroll here: Further examples include the deployment of virtual reality solutions in surgery simulations and medical training to psychological treatment and patient care experiences.

Intific (Arlington, Va., a subsidiary of Cubic Global Defense) offers a range of products. Of interest here is RealWorld NeuroBridge, a simulation toolkit that allows researchers to easily develop and explore complex immersive experiences in order to understand human cognition. The software, “…enables correlation of simulation events with dynamic brain activity and it permits those signals to control events within the simulation, thus closing the loop.” The package is “An easy to use, creative, and collaborative software platform.”

I think it possible to spot some trends within the trends. The first is education: any activity in which being in the environment is either beneficial to the student, but dangerous, expensive, etc. is a likely candidate. And studying the student reaction to environments is also possible in a very controlled and ever more hospitable setting. It seems that the simulations provided by, and reactions to, the virtual environment and the data it provides, are becoming increasingly useful and valid. The second is any area in which the object being studied is best examined in 3-D. There is a lot of data about the benefits of studying cells in a 3-D culture platform, a more life-like environment. If someone has not already, it might not be long before someone is imaging the same in great detail and then donning a headset and taking a stroll through a tumor for a close up study of morphology. I’m sure my imagination here is limited and also that 3-D and virtual imaging will not be needed or appropriate for everything being studied. (One note – 4-D, studying changes in physical structure over time, is, as they say nowadays, a thing). But VR is here, and it’s going to be more here tomorrow.