Using Virtual Reality to Understand Inner Perceptual World of Autism

Researcher: Sarune Savickaite

Autism, a common neuro-developmental condition, affects at least 1% of the UK population. Autism is partly characterized by sensory difficulties, such as over- or under-responsiveness to certain types of lighting and everyday noises, and an almost obsessive desire for particular types of sensory stimulation, known as “sensory seeking” behaviour. To date, most research on sensory aspects of autism has used parent/caregiver-reports, combined with a smaller amount of self-report data from those able to speak for themselves and further data from lab-based experiments. So far, however, despite these data providing us with some fascinating insights, we have yet to fully appreciate precisely what is going on in the “inner perceptual world” of autism, although it is clear that it is qualitatively different from what typical individuals experience.In this project we propose the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technology to explore this inner perceptual world. VR technology has become much less bulky and much more affordable in recent years, and the availability of software has burgeoned. In our experiments we aim to explore perceptual worlds by asking people to illustrate their experiences using the powerful and compelling creative tools now available for use in VR environments, such as Tiltbrush ( . We will use a combination of quantitative analysis of participants’ responses to questionnaires with qualitative analysis of both their verbal descriptions (if available) and of their audio-visual creations to further understand the nature of their inner perceptual worlds. Furthermore, we will use our experience in objective behavioural experimentation to embed game-like tasks into the created environments to explore our participants’ perceptual limits more objectively. This collaborative project will further our understanding of the inner perceptual world of autism and result in the development of a suite of versatile VR software tools together with new techniques of creative expression for those with communication difficulties.

Using Virtual Reality Technology to Examine the Relationship between Sensory Sensitivities and Anxiety

Researcher: Elliot Millington

Anxiety is one of the most common psychiatric conditions in the western world, with lifetime incidence estimates of up to 25%. Anxiety acts as a barrier to educational, vocational and societal engagement and is estimated to cost the US economy $38 Billion annually. One of the most consistent causal factors of anxiety are sensory sensitivities, usually over- and/or under-responsivity to everyday sensory stimulation such as noises, lights and smells. Research into sensory sensitivities and anxiety originated in the autism literature, but evidence, partly from our laboratory, has emerged that sensory sensitivities strongly impact typically developing individuals as well. Whilst there is a robust empirical and theoretical literature looking at the interactions between autism, sensory sensitivities and anxiety, unfortunately it is largely questionnaire-based and/or correlational. The aim of this project is to use the methodological advantages of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies to experimentally test the key relationships which form the basis of these theoretical frameworks and then apply these findings in the form of environmental accommodations. In previous research, immersive environments have been used both to treat and induce anxiety. It is clear that VR can therefore be used to manipulate the anxiety levels of participants in a safe and controlled manner. The first step in this project will be to construct a virtual environment in which the participant’s anxiety level can be closely controlled, whilst also developing competencies using equipment, such as wearable technology, to objectively measure real-time anxiety. The second stage will be to expand the methodology to measure real-time sensory sensitivity. Finally, this environment will be used to empirically probe the parameter space of sensory sensitivity and anxiety whilst accounting for individual differences in susceptibility. The industrial partner specializes in content creation for virtual environments and is specifically targeting workplace training and healthcare applications: perfectly suited to this project.

Influence of Virtual Worlds and Illusions on Learning and Immersion

Researcher: Tammy-Ann Husselman

There is increasing interest in making the world more accessible to neurodivergent people. The term “neurodivergence” refers to individuals whose brain structures differ from the norm, (i.e., people with diagnosed conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and/or high levels of associated traits). Estimates of the prevalence of neurodivergence vary, ranging from a conservative 3% (those with diagnosed ASD and ADHD) up to as much as 15% of the UK population. Research suggests that neurodivergence is associated with increased levels of sensory differences, including hypersensitivity (i.e., over responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (i.e., under responsiveness) to a variety of sensory stimuli (e.g. Robertson & Simmons, 2013; Panagiotidi et al, 2018). One proposed theory of perception in autism, “Perceptual Load Theory”, suggests that neurodivergent individuals can process higher levels of complexity of sensory information, meaning that highly complex sensory environments might be preferred. However, this may come at the expense of increased sensory stimulation leading to the unpleasant state of “sensory overload”. How do sensory differences affect the accessibility of new pedagogical platforms such as Virtual Reality (VR) environments? This research project aims to develop a new educational VR environment, called the “World of illusions” incorporating configurable audio-visual and pedagogical information content. We will then use our expert knowledge of sensory aspects of neurodivergence to investigate (1) how perceptual complexity and information content and (2) how the number of users and interactivity levels influence learning and immersion levels in single- and multi-user VR. The end result will be improved understanding of the optimal characteristics of information delivery in VR Environments to ensure it is absorbing and pleasant for all potential users.