Confronting Virtual Reality: An Undergrad Research Experience
A guest blog post by Jeremy Mamisao, an undergraduate Research Assistant at Simon Fraser University's Pain Studies Lab.
Posted by GRAND NCE, December 9, 2013

Jeremy Mamisao,
(From Left) Student researchers Samantha Derochie, Jeremy Mamisao, participant Angelica Sypal-Kohout, and student Julian Giordano (far-right) demonstrate Sensorium - an immersive virtual reality system that allows users to control the virtual environment through bio-feedback. Photo: Marie Cheung.

The Pain Studies Lab (also known as the Transforming Pain Research Group or TPRG) at Simon Fraser University's School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) intersects pain medicine, computer science, communications, and design in the development of innovative treatments for chronic pain - a disease that affects an estimated 15-30% of Canadians. Led by GRAND's Director of Health Research Dr. Diane Gromala, the lab is at the forefront of a new and growing research field, both in Canada and worldwide, using technologies such as Immersive Virtual Reality, biofeedback, and social media to help individuals effectively manage their pain. As a centre for training, the lab offers graduate and undergraduate students the opportunity to develop computerized therapies with the potential to improve the lives of millions.

The following is a guest blog post by Jeremy Mamisao, an undergraduate researcher at the Pain Studies Lab.

Confronting Virtual Reality: An Undergrad Research Experience

By Jeremy Mamisao, Research Assistant, Pain Studies Lab, SFU

The unique experience of being an undergraduate researcher in the Transforming Pain Research Group at Simon Fraser University has given me a great opportunity to apply my design-based research skills in the fields of health and pain management. By working with scientists, doctors, and technology-based researchers, I’ve had the chance to try new design techniques while making a difference in the lives of people living with chronic pain. People suffering from chronic pain are always looking for complementary and alternative ways to feel relief – even if they are only short-term – and I believe that a blend of the arts and sciences is a promising way to support this need.

My experience with TPRG was all accomplished while completing my degree as an undergrad student at SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT). In my Interactive Arts + Technology degree program, I was trained in such skills as animation, interaction design, and sound design. My degree program was unique in that we learned a variety of multimedia practices and were encouraged to combine them in ways to solve real world problems. Rather then just learning a technical skill, my program was beneficial in that they taught the theories and applicable reasons why we were doing the projects we were doing and how we can make a difference in our communities with design. In my third year I took a class where I built interactive installations with a combination of video, programming, and sound design technology, and I immediately was inspired by the idea of immersive Virtual Reality (VR). I found VR technology fascinating because, for me, VR is the ultimate form of communication; it has the capability to engage the senses of the user in a way that a traditional screen or audio speaker cannot by immersing all of one’s senses in computer generated stimuli. Learning that VR was used in such fields as rehab, therapy, and health research, I became interested in the field, and decided to see if research and development was something that I wanted to be involved in. I approached my current supervisor at the Pain Studies Lab, Dr. Diane Gromala, and started a position there as a research assistant working as a designer.

Working alongside graduate students at the Pain Studies Lab was intimidating at first, and proved to be a challenge in itself to get used to the environment. Preparing publications, attending conferences, and conducting experiments were all foreign concepts to me, but I soon adapted, enjoying the work style in the supportive and fun environment of the university. Being challenged by grad students, faculty and my supervisors has been an excellent way for me to gain practical experience and learn about academia. One of my most memorable experiences working at the lab was when we conducted a focus group with chronic pain patients, and got to hear their stories about their day-to-day lives. Hearing the experiences of the patients gave me new perspective on why my work mattered, and it made me more ambitious to contribute towards the projects.

My most major accomplishment to date at the lab was building a VR environment titled Sensorium, an immersive virtual environment that teaches users about their body states using Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) technology. Depending on how stressful the user is, visuals and sounds are triggered, fluctuating the [virtual] world between peaceful and chaotic states. This project was built as a collaborative effort between my colleagues Julian Giordano and Samantha Derochie as a self directed part of our undergraduate work. Our VR project was supported by my supervisors, and by other grad students, leading Sensorium to be exhibited at a number of community events, and receive media attention and praise from different faculties[?] of the university. Most recently, a poster presentation for the project was showcased at PainWEEK, a large-scale conference focused on health research involving health practitioners and doctors. Having the project become such a success was a real accomplishment for me and my team. To our knowledge, a VR environment of the same caliber as Sensorium has never been done in a program at our level of experience.

By working with GRAND’s CPRm project, I have opened up new possibilities for my future career and gained hands on grad level research experience that will translate well when I enter graduate studies. While I originally did not know what field of work I wanted to engage in, working with the arts in a scientific way has given me new insight into how I can incorporate my own design practices and apply them to health communication. Much like my degree program, I believe that GRAND has a great thing going in fusing disciplines and encouraging collaboration, and I am happy that I have been able to be a part of the network. Having the opportunity to travel to the annual GRAND NCE conference gave me the chance to share my research with other members of GRAND, and promote the research of CPRm in an engaging and welcoming environment. The connections I made there were invaluable and I look forward to the possibilities out there for collaborations with GRAND’s other research projects.