Two faculty members from New Mexico State University have been awarded $350,000 from Las Cruces-based tech company Electronic Caregiver to create a laboratory for aging and functional lifespan research, along with research of visual search scenarios and motor performance environments, using augmented and virtual reality.
The Addison Care VR/AR Laboratory will be located inside Milton Hall. NMSU professors Phillip Post, interim department head of the Department of Kinesiology and Dance, and Michael C. Hout, NMSU associate professor in the Department of Psychology, will co-direct the lab. NMSU students and professors will have access to the lab in order to conduct researching using augmented and virtual reality.
“This lab is going to be a game-changer. First, it’s a huge technological investment in NMSU, and will provide myriad new opportunities for faculty researchers, graduate students, and undergraduates,” Hout said. “From a research perspective, a lab like this will allow us to investigate an area of research that is both understudied and extremely difficult to study in the first place.”
Hout said the lab will allow researchers to identify best practices in the visual search component of search and rescue techniques.
“With a VR lab like this, we can create custom, well-controlled environments that allow us to study SAR in a safe place, and that allow for precise behavioral and oculomotor measurements,” Hout said. “This is something that is frankly near impossible to accomplish without the tools that ECG is providing. Moreover, this is just the beginning of what seems to me to be an extremely fruitful relationship with ECG, which is something that is going to provide huge benefits to the NMSU community and the Las Cruces area.”
The lab’s research team will employ graduate and undergraduate research assistants from several departments across campus, including kinesiology, psychology, computer science, electrical engineering and the Creative Media Institute. Among the goals of the lab are to conduct research on slips and falls, search and rescue behaviors, rehabilitation scenarios and voice interaction in rehabilitation, visual search and aging. The lab’s research team will also develop and work with ECG and Addison Care to create an Amazon Web Services virtual reality case study.
“ECG’s generous donation is a huge investment in NMSU and the local community,” Post said. “The Addison Care VR/AR Laboratory will enable Mike and I to conduct cutting edge research in the areas of clinical rehabilitation, skill acquisition, search and rescue, and falls prevention. The lab will enable us to study scenarios that would not be practical or safe in real-world settings. Not only will NMSUs research enterprise benefit from this generous gift, but our students will benefit as well. Specifically, NMSU students will get hands-on experience working with next generation technology that will prepare them for the jobs of the future.”
One of the long-term goals of the lab is to conduct research on how the study of oculomotor measurements can improve the efficiency of search and rescue teams. Rebecca Penn, an NMSU graduate student studying cognitive psychology under Hout, is a member of the Mesilla Valley Search and Rescue team and will be involved in the lab’s research.
“Search and rescue teams are almost exclusively volunteers, and the way that we get trained to search for things doesn’t necessarily involve a lot of procedural training on how to visually scan through an environment as we move through it. You have to move your eyeballs around as you are walking throughout the environment to look for things that could be clues, and it’s hard to research exactly how we do that,” Penn said.
Penn said the lab will allow researchers to start to recreate search and rescue-type scenarios and to be able to study how search and rescue teams move their eyes around in space as they are walking around different environments.
“We get called out to Cloudcroft or to the Gilas, not just to the immediate desert areas around us. Our ultimate hope is to improve training,” Penn said.
The lab also fits with ECG’s mission targeting older populations, especially those at risk of wandering and becoming lost and those at risk of experiencing slips and falls. Virtual reality and augmented reality will allow researchers to create environments to test perception deficiencies and auditory perception without putting subjects at risk of physical harm.
“We’re very excited about what Dr. Hout and Dr. Post will do with the lab,” said Bryan Chasko, chief technology officer for Electronic Caregiver. “We have a really strong relationship with NMSU, and this will be the crown jewel that will spotlight our relationship.”
Anthony Dohrmann, Electronic Caregiver founder and CEO, said the lab allows professionals to be placed into the environments of patients to provide chronic disease management and also lets patients receive care at home and outside of the walls of health providers. The lab will also complement the growing tech industry in New Mexico and West Texas, which Dohrmann has referred to as the Rio Grande Technology Corridor.
“This vision for the virtual reality/augmented reality lab at NMSU is to build on a relationship that dates back seven years, and to build on capital to explore news ways to implement this technology besides for entertainment,” Dohrmann said. “We are all about New Mexico first, and this is an investment for students to get cutting-edge skill sets that will allow them to step into positions on par with anything in Silicon Valley.”