1. Study finds ‘moral enhancement’ technologies neither feasible nor wise

    May 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the North Carolina State University press release:

    A recent study by researchers at North Carolina State University and the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) finds that “moral enhancement technologies” — which are discussed as ways of improving human behavior — are neither feasible nor wise, based on an assessment of existing research into these technologies.

    The idea behind moral enhancement technologies is to use biomedical techniques to make people more moral. For example, using drugs or surgical techniques to treat criminals who have exhibited moral defects.

    “There are existing ways that people have explored to manipulate morality, but the question we address in this paper is whether manipulating morality actually improves it,” says Veljko Dubljevic, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of philosophy at NC State who studies the ethics of neuroscience and technology.

    Dubljevic and co-author Eric Racine of the IRCM reviewed the existing research on moral enhancement technologies that have been used in humans to assess the effects of these technologies and how they may apply in real-world circumstances.

    Specifically, the researchers looked at four types of pharmaceutical interventions and three neurostimulation techniques:

    • Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that plays a critical role in social cognition, bonding and affiliative behaviors, sometimes called “the moral molecule”;
    • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed for depression, but have also been found to make people less aggressive;
    • Amphetamines, which some have argued can be used to enhance motivation to take action;
    • Beta blockers are often prescribed to treat high blood pressure, but have also been found to decrease implicit racist responses;
    • Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a type of neurostimulation that has been used to treat depression, but has also been reported as changing the way people respond to moral dilemmas;
    • Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) is an experimental form of neurostimulation that has also been reported as making people more utilitarian; and
    • Deep brain stimulation is a neurosurgical intervention that some have hypothesized as having the potential to enhance motivation.

    “What we found is that, yes, many of these techniques do have some effects,” Dubljevic says. “But these techniques are all blunt instruments, rather than finely tuned technologies that could be helpful. So, moral enhancement is really a bad idea.

    “In short, moral enhancement is not feasible — and even if it were, history shows us that using science to in an attempt to manipulate morality is not wise,” Dubljevic says.

    The researchers found different problems for each of the pharmaceutical approaches.

    Oxytocin does promote trust, but only in the in-group,” Dubljevic notes. “And it can decrease cooperation with out-group members of society, such as racial minorities, and selectively promote ethnocentrism, favoritism, and parochialism.”

    The researchers also found that amphetamines boost motivation for all types of behavior, not just moral behavior. Moreover, there are significant risks of addiction associated with amphetamines. Beta blockers were found not only to decrease racism, but to blunt all emotional response which puts their usefulness into doubt. SSRIs reduce aggression, but have serious side-effects, including an increased risk of suicide.

    In addition to physical side effects, the researchers also found a common problem with using either TMS or TCDS technologies.

    “Even if we could find a way to make these technologies work consistently, there are significant questions about whether being more utilitarian in one’s decision-making actually makes one more moral,” Dubljevic says.

    Lastly, the researchers found no evidence that deep brain stimulation had any effect whatsoever on moral behavior.

    “Our goal here is to share a cautionary note with those who are discussing different techniques for moral enhancement,” Dubljevic says. “I am in favor of research that is done responsibly, but against dangerous social experiments.”


  2. How Pokémon GO can help students build stronger communication skills

    May 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Iowa State University press release:

    Technology continues to change the way students learn and engage with their peers, parents and community. That is why Emily Howell, an assistant professor in Iowa State University’s School of Education, is working with teachers to develop new ways to incorporate digital tools in the classroom, including playing games such as Pokémon GO.

    The focus of Howell’s work is two-fold — to give students equitable access to technology and help them build multimodal communication skills. That means not only using technology to consume information or replace traditional classroom tools, but experimenting with new forms of communication, she said. Instead of having students read a book on a tablet or use the computer to type an assignment, they need to learn how to create and upload videos or build graphics and maps to convey their message.

    Howell’s suggestion of having students play Pokémon GO to build these skills may seem a bit unconventional. However, after playing the smartphone game with her own children, she saw how it could help students with writing and research in ways that align with Common Core standards. Howell says engaging students through Pokémon GO, a game many are already playing outside the classroom, also generates interest and connects students to their work.

    “It is important to give students authentic choices that really have meaning in their lives,” Howell said. “We need to encourage them to develop questions, research the answers and then share that information in writing.”

    For example, a common assignment is to have elementary students write an essay on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — a task students can easily explain, but not a genuine question many have, Howell said. Pokémon GO, like many video games, provides players with limited information or what Howell describes as “just in time learning.” As a result, players have questions about how to use certain tools or advance to the next level.

    Playing the game with her own children, Howell watched their enthusiasm in researching and finding the answers to these questions. They were even more excited to share their knowledge with her and their grandmother, who was also playing the game. In a paper published in the journal The Reading Teacher, Howell explains how teachers can have students identify questions about Pokémon GO, find the answers and present their findings in different formats.

    Using different modes of communication

    Pokémon GO incorporates different modes of communication — gestures, visuals and directions — which makes it a good fit for the classroom, Howell said. Players see the character on their phone, the character is integrated into a map and the player controls catching the character. Pokémon GO illustrates the need to understand multimodal text, which reflects how we communicate with others, she said.

    “We don’t just send a text or email; we have a live chat or video conferences. Anytime teachers can find something that students are already doing, and comes in multimodal form, they can harness that interest and teach students about the tool’s potential,” Howell said.

    Even more than conventional tools such as a paper and pen, teachers must provide a framework for using digital tools. Howell says students need to understand conventional literacy skills, but also learn how to upload files or design elements on a page that are not in a linear progression.

    “It’s not just giving students the technology and letting them play, it’s really guiding that interaction so they can express meaning,” Howell said.

    Providing a safe, online forum

    To make the assignment even more authentic, Howell suggests giving students an outlet to share their work with people outside of the classroom. Many school districts create secure, online platforms where students can share work with family and friends and receive feedback. Knowing that others will view their work helps students develop writing styles for different audiences, not just their teacher, Howell said.

    “It makes the assignment more authentic and helps with motivation and understanding the purpose for writing,” she said. “It has academic as well as social benefits.”

    Howell received a grant from the Center for Educational Transformation at the University of Northern Iowa to help elementary teachers in Iowa integrate technology into their writing lessons. The goal is to engage students in writing so that they are using digital tools to create content, rather than strictly consume information.


  3. How technology use affects at-risk adolescents

    May 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    More use of technology is linked to later increases in attention, behavior and self-regulation problems for adolescents already at risk for mental health issues, a new study from Duke University finds.

    “Also, on days at-risk adolescents use technology more, they experience more conduct problems and higher ADHD symptoms compared to days they use technology less,” said Madeleine J. George, a Duke Ph.D. candidate and the lead author of the study.

    However, the study also found that using technology was linked to some positive outcomes: On days when adolescents spent more time using digital technologies they were less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    The research, published May 3 in a special issue of Child Development, looks at associations between adolescents’ mental health symptoms and how much time they spent each day texting, using social media and using the Internet.

    For the study, 151 young adolescents completed surveys on smartphones about their daily digital technology use. They were surveyed three times a day for a month and were assessed for mental health symptoms 18 months later. The youth participating were between 11 and 15 years old, were of a lower socioeconomic status and were at a heightened risk for mental health problems.

    The adolescents spent an average of 2.3 hours a day using digital technologies. More than an hour of that time was spent texting, with the adolescents sending an average of 41 texts a day.

    The researchers found that on days when adolescents used their devices more — both when they exceeded their own normal use and when they exceeded average use by their peers — they were more likely to experience conduct problems such as lying, fighting and other behavioral problems.

    In addition, on days when adolescents used digital devices more, they had difficulty paying attention and exhibited attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder symptoms.

    The study also found that young adolescents who spent more time online experienced increases in conduct problems and problems with self-regulation — the ability to control one’s behavior and emotions — 18 months later.

    It’s unclear whether high levels of technology use were simply a marker of elevated same-day mental health symptoms or if the use of technology exacerbated existing symptoms, said Candice Odgers, the senior author of the study and a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

    On the positive side, the researchers found evidence that digital technology use may be helpful to adolescents experiencing depression and anxiety. More time spent texting was associated with fewer same-day symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    “This finding makes sense when you think about how kids are commonly using devices to connect with their peers and social networks,” said Odgers, a faculty fellow at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.

    The findings suggest contemporary youth may be using digital technology to connect in positive ways versus isolating themselves, the authors said. In the past, some research found that teenagers using digital technology were socially isolated. But at that time, only a small minority of youth were frequently online.

    Odgers noted that the adolescents in the study were already at an increased risk for mental health problems regardless of digital device use. It’s therefore unclear if the findings would apply to all adolescents. Because this was a correlational study, it is possible factors other than technology use could have caused the increase in mental health problems.

    As rates of adolescent technology use continue to climb, more work is needed to investigate its effects, the researchers say. Odgers and George are now conducting a large study of more than 2,000 N.C. adolescents to determine how and why high digital device use predicts future problems among some adolescents. The study also looks at whether being constantly connected during adolescence could provide opportunities to improve mental health.


  4. Handheld screen time linked with speech delays in young children

    May 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Pediatrics press release:

    As the number of smart phones, tablets, electronic games and other handheld screens in U.S. homes continues to grow, some children begin using these devices before beginning to talk. New research being presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting suggests these children may be at higher risk for speech delays.

    Researchers will present the abstract, “Is handheld screen time use associated with language delay in infants?” on Saturday, May 6 at the Moscone West Convention Center in San Francisco. The study included 894 children between ages 6 months and 2 years participating in TARGet Kids!, a practice-based research network in Toronto between 2011 and 2015.

    By their 18-month check-ups, 20 percent of the children had daily average handheld device use of 28 minutes, according to their parents. Based on a screening tool for language delay, researchers found that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech. For each 30-minute increase in handheld screen time, researchers found a 49 percent increased risk of expressive speech delay. There was no apparent link between handheld device screen time and other communications delays, such as social interactions, body language or gestures.

    “Handheld devices are everywhere these days,” said Dr. Catherine Birken, MD, MSc, FRCPC, the study’s principal investigator and a staff pediatrician and scientist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). “While new pediatric guidelines suggest limiting screen time for babies and toddlers, we believe that the use of smartphones and tablets with young children has become quite common. This is the first study to report an association between handheld screen time and increased risk of expressive language delay.”

    Dr. Birken said the results support a recent policy recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics to discourage any type of screen media in children younger than 18 months. More research is needed, she said, to understand the type and contents of screen activities infants are engaging in to further explore mechanisms behind the apparent link between handheld screen time and speech delay, such as time spent together with parents on handheld devices, and to understand the impact on in-depth and longer-term communication outcomes in early childhood.


  5. Study suggests game features can be used to enhance motivation

    April 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Using game features in non-game contexts, computers can learn to build personalized mental- and physical-therapy programs that enhance individual motivation, according to Penn State engineers.

    “We want to understand the human and team behaviors that motivate learning to ultimately develop personalized methods of learning instead of the one-size-fits-all approach that is often taken,” said Conrad Tucker, assistant professor of engineering design technology and professional programs.

    They seek to use machine learning to train computers to develop personalized mental or physical therapy regimens — for example, to overcome anxiety or recover from a shoulder injury — so many individuals can each use a tailor-made program.

    “Using people to individually evaluate others is not efficient or sustainable in time or human resources and does not scale up well to large numbers of people,” said Tucker. “We need to train computers to read individual people. Gamification explores the idea that different people are motivated by different things.”

    To begin creating computer models for therapy programs, the researchers tested how to most effectively make the completion of a physical task into a gamified application by incorporating game features like scoring, avatars, challenges and competition.

    “We’re exploring here how gamification could be applied to health and wellness by focusing on physically interactive gamified applications,” said Christian Lopez, graduate student in industrial and manufacturing engineering, who helped conduct the tests using a virtual-reality game environment.

    In the virtual-reality tests, researchers asked participants to physically avoid obstacles as they moved through a virtual environment. The game system recorded their actual body positions using motion sensors and then mirrored their movements with an avatar in virtual reality.

    Participants had to bend, crouch, raise their arms, and jump to avoid obstacles. The participant successfully avoided a virtual obstacle if no part of their avatar touched the obstacle. If they made contact, the researchers rated the severity of the mistake by how much of the avatar touched the obstacle.

    In one of the application designs, participants could earn more points by moving to collect virtual coins, which sometimes made them hit an obstacle.

    “As task complexity increases, participants need more motivation to achieve the same level of results,” said Lopez. “No matter how engaging a particular feature is, it needs to move the participant towards completing the objective rather than backtracking or wasting time on a tangential task. Adding more features doesn’t necessarily enhance performance.”

    Tucker and Lopez created a predictive algorithm — a mathematical formula to forecast the outcome of an event — that rates the potential usefulness of a game feature. They then tested how well each game feature motivated participants when completing the virtual-reality tasks. They compared their test results to the algorithm’s predictions as a proof of concept and found that the formula correctly anticipated which game features best motivated people in the physically interactive tasks.

    The researchers found that gamified applications with a scoring system, the ability to select an avatar, and in-game rewards led to significantly fewer mistakes and higher performance than those with a win-or-lose system, randomized gaming backgrounds and performance-based awards.

    Sixty-eight participants tested two designs that differed only by the features used to complete the same set of tasks. Tucker and Lopez published their results in Computers in Human Behavior.

    The researchers chose the tested game features from the top-ranked games in the Google Play app store, taking advantage of the features that make the games binge-worthy and re-playable, and then narrowed the selection based on available technology.

    Their algorithm next ranked game features by how easily designers could implement them, the physical complexity of using the feature, and the impact of the feature on participant motivation and ability to complete the task. If a game feature is too technologically difficult to incorporate into the game, too physically complex, does not offer enough incentive for added effort or works against the end goal of the game, then the feature has low potential usefulness.

    The researchers would also like to use these results to boost workplace performance and personalize virtual-reality classrooms for online education.

    “Game culture has already explored and mastered the psychological aspects of games that make them engaging and motivating,” said Tucker. “We want to leverage that knowledge towards the goal of individualized optimization of workplace performance.”

    To do this, Tucker and Lopez next want to connect performance with mental state during these gamified physical tasks. Heart rate, electroencephalogram signals and facial expressions will be used as proxies for mood and mental state while completing tasks to connect mood with game features that affect motivation.


  6. Study suggests Facebook can function as safety net for the bereaved

    by Ashley

    From the Northeastern University press release:

     Neuroscientists have long noted that if certain brain cells are destroyed by, say, a stroke, new circuits may be laid in another location to compensate, essentially rewiring the brain. Northeastern’s William R. Hobbs, an expert in computational social science, wanted to know if social networks responded similarly after the death of a close mutual friend.

    In new research published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior, Hobbs found that they did, thereby representing a paradigm of social network resilience.

    Hobbs, who led the study, collaborated with Facebook data scientist Moira Burke. The researchers found that close friends of the deceased immediately increased their interactions with one another by 30 percent, peaking in volume. The interactions faded a bit in the following months and ultimately stabilized at the same volume of interaction as before the death, even two years after the loss. This insight into how social networks adapt to significant losses could lead to new ways to help people with the grieving process, ensuring that their networks are able to recover rather than collapse during these difficult times.

    “Most people don’t have very many friends, so when we lose one, that leaves a hole in our networks as well as in our lives,” says Hobbs, a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science. He wondered: Would a social network unravel with a central member gone? If it recovered, how might it heal?

    “We expected to see a spike in interactions among close friends immediately after the loss, corresponding with the acute grieving period,” says Hobbs. “What surprised us was that the stronger ties continued for years. People made up for the loss of interacting with the friend who had died by increasing interactions with one another.”

    Hobbs came to the study from a crisis of his own. After college, he lived and worked in China studying local governments. But when he entered graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, his father was dying. “So I switched to American politics, then to studying chronic illnesses, and then moving into the effect of deaths on others,” he says.

    That switch led to this first large-scale investigation of recovery and resilience after a death in social networks.

    It has the potential to reveal a great deal about ourselves, says Lazer, who is also a core faculty member in the Network Science Institute at Northeastern. “Death is a tear in the fabric of the social network that binds us together,” he says. “This research provides insight into how our networks heal from this tear over time, and points to the ways that our digital traces can offer important clues into how we help each other through the grieving process.”

    Using sophisticated data counters and computer analysis, the researchers compared monthly interactions — wall posts, comments, and photo tags — of approximately 15,000 Facebook networks that had experienced the death of a friend with monthly interactions of approximately 30,000 similar Facebook networks that had not.

    The first group comprised more than 770,000 people, the latter more than 2 million. They learned about the deaths from California state vital records, and characterized “close friends” as those who had interacted with the person who died before the study began. To maintain the users’ privacy, the data was aggregated and “de-identified” — that is, all elements that associated the data with the individual were removed.

    “The response was different from what other researchers have found regarding natural disasters or other kinds of trauma,” says Hobbs. “There you see a spike in communications but that disappears quickly afterward.”

    In particular, the researchers found that networks comprising young adults, ages 18 to 24, showed the strongest recovery. They were not only more likely to recover than others, their interaction levels also stayed elevated — higher than before the loss. Networks experiencing suicides, on the other hand, showed the least amount of recovery. Further research is necessary to understand why, says Hobbs.

    “We didn’t study the subjective experience of loss, or how people feel,” cautions Hobbs. “We looked at recovery only in terms of connectivity. We also can’t say for certain whether the results translate into closer friendships offline.” What they do show is that online social networks appear to function as a safety net. “They do so quickly, and the effect persists,” he says. “There are so few studies on the effect of the death of a friend on a network. This is a big step forward.”


  7. Study suggests hands-free technology may still affect driver attention

    April 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society press release:

    Drivers commonly perform secondary tasks while behind the wheel to navigate or communicate with others, which has led to a significant increase in the number of injuries and fatalities attributed to distracted driving. Advances in wearable technology, particularly devices such as Google Glass, which feature voice control and head-up display (HUD) functionalities, raise questions about how these devices might impact driver attention when used in vehicles. New human factors/ergonomics research examines how these interface characteristics can have a deleterious effect on safety.

    In their Human Factors article, “Driving While Interacting With Google Glass: Investigating the Combined Effect of Head-Up Display and Hands-Free Input on Driving Safety and Multitask Performance,” authors Kathryn Tippey, Elayaraj Sivaraj, and Thomas Ferris observed the performance of 24 participants in a driving simulator. The participants engaged in four texting-while-driving tasks: baseline (driving only), and driving plus reading and responding to text messages via (a) a smartphone keyboard, (b) a smartphone voice-to text system, and (c) Google Glass’s voice-to-text system using HUD.

    The authors found that driving performance degraded regardless of secondary texting task type, but manual entry led to slower reaction times and significantly more eyes-off-road glances than voice-to-text input using both smartphones and Google Glass. Glass’ HUD function required only a change in eye direction to read and respond to text messages, rather than the more disruptive change in head and body posture associated with smartphones. Participants also reported that Glass was easier to use and interfered less with driving than did the other devices tested.

    Tippey, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Research and Innovation in Systems Safety at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says, “Our evidence suggests that adding voice input and using an HUD can make secondary tasks like texting while driving less unsafe. However, regardless of entry or display method, it is not safe to perform these types of secondary task while driving in environments where the workload from driving is already heavy.”


  8. Drivers who slow down while using mobile phones may potentially increase on-road conflicts

    April 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Queensland University of Technology press release:

    Drivers who slow down while using mobile phones have the potential to increase on-road conflicts, a new QUT study warns.

    Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios, from QUT’s Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety — Queensland (CARRS-Q), said distracted drivers reducing their speed might sound favourable in terms of safety, but it could also lead to other types of crash risk.

    Drivers frustrated by following slow moving vehicles whose drivers have reduced speed to keep talking on their phones may perform aggressive overtaking manoeuvres, increasing the crash risk for other road users,” he said.

    The results of the study “Effects of road infrastructure and traffic complexity in speed adaptation behaviour of distracted drivers” have been published in the leading road safety journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said using a mobile phone while driving had been shown to increase crash risk four-fold.

    “Young drivers are particularly at risk as there is a greater prevalence of driving while using a mobile phone in this age group.

    “While it’s illegal to use a handheld mobile phone while driving in Australia research has shown drivers continue to adopt the dangerous practice.”

    In a bid to highlight the dangers but also identify possible solutions, Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios’ research has looked at the way drivers react and respond to mobile phone use behind the wheel.

    “We found that on average distracted drivers travel at about 5km/h slower when following another vehicle and almost 3km/h slower in free-flowing traffic.

    “The negative consequences this has on other road users include increased risk of nose-to-tail crashes as a result of sudden stopping, perception of discourteous or aggressive driver behaviour, as well congestion to the transport system,” he said.

    “I guess the question needs to be asked, do we really want to sacrifice safety, efficiency and courtesy just to have a conversation?”

    Mr Oviedo-Trespalacios said the research also suggested ideas for safe ways to use mobile phones while driving.

    “We need to consider that if we can’t stop drivers using their mobile phones, is there a way to make it safe?

    “For example, changing the design of mobile phones so they are context-aware and only work when it is safe to do so.

    “Other options maybe looking at advances in technology and developing warning systems that alert drivers when they are distracted, or advise drivers of when it is safe to use their phone handsfree.”


  9. Researchers develop way to teach computer to play Concentration, could improve understanding of human mind

    July 7, 2013 by Ashley

    From the North Carolina State University press release via ScienceDaily:

    cute_geek_computerComputer science researchers have programmed a computer to play the game Concentration (also known as Memory). The work could help improve computer security — and improve our understanding of how the human mind works.

    The researchers developed a program to get the software system called ACT-R, a computer simulation that attempts to replicate human thought processes, to play Concentration. In the game, multiple matching pairs of cards are placed face down in a random order, and players are asked to flip over two cards, one at a time, to find the matching pairs. If a player flips over two cards that do not match, the cards are placed back face down. The player succeeds by remembering where the matching cards are located.

    The researchers were able to either rush ACT-R’s decision-making, which led it to play more quickly but make more mistakes, or allow ACT-R to take its time, which led to longer games with fewer mistakes.

    As part of the study, 179 human participants played Concentration 20 times each — 10 times for accuracy and 10 times for speed — to give the researchers a point of comparison for their ACT-R model.

    The findings will help the researchers distinguish between human players and automated “bots,” ultimately helping them develop models to identify bots in a variety of applications. These bots pose security problems for online games, online voting and other Web applications.

    “One way to approach the distinction between bot behavior and human behavior is to look at how bots behave,” says Dr. Robert St. Amant, an associate professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the work. “Another way is to look at what humans do. We’re focusing on the latter.

    “We’re looking for distinctions so subtle that they’d be very difficult to replicate outside of a cognitive architecture like ACT-R,” says Dr. David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of the paper. “The level of sophistication needed to replicate those distinctions in a bot would be so expensive, in terms of time and money, that it would — hopefully — be cost-prohibitive.”

    The researchers were also able to modify the parameters of their Concentration model to determine which set of variables resulted in gameplay that most closely matched the gameplay of the human study participants.

    This offers a plausible explanation of the cognitive processes taking place in the human mind when playing Concentration. For example, the Concentration model sometimes has a choice to make: remember a previous matching card and select it, or explore the board by selecting a new card. When playing for speed, the model takes the latter choice because it’s faster than retrieving the information from memory. This may also be what’s happening in the human brain when we play Concentration.

    “This is information that moves us incrementally closer to understanding how cognitive function relates to the way we interact with computers,” Roberts says. “Ultimately, this sort of information could one day be used to develop tools to help software designers identify how their design decisions affect the end users of their products. For example, do some design features confuse users? Which ones, and at what point? That would be useful information.”

    The paper, “Modeling the Concentration Game with ACT-R,” will be presented at the International Conference on Cognitive Modeling, being held July 11-14 in Ottawa. Lead author of the paper is Titus Barik, a Ph.D. student at NC State. Co-authors include St. Amant, Roberts, and NC State Ph.D. students Arpan Chakraborty and Brent Harrison. The research was supported by the National Security Agency.


  10. Study suggests virtual imaging technology could help with social anxiety

    July 4, 2013 by Ashley

    From the University of East Anglia press release via HealthCanal:

    virtual realityNew virtual imaging technology could be used as part of therapy to help people get over social anxiety according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA).

    Research published today investigated for the first time whether people with social anxiety could benefit from seeing themselves interacting in social situations via video capture.

    The experiment gave participants the chance to experience social interaction in the safety of a virtual environment by seeing their own life-size image projected into specially scripted real-time video scenes.

    UEA researchers, led by Dr Lina Gega from UEA’s Norwich Medical School and MHCO’s Northumberland Talking Therapies, worked with Xenodu Virtual Environments to create more than 100 different social scenarios – such as using public transport, buying a drink at a bar, socialising at a party, shopping, and talking to a stranger in an art gallery.

    The researchers tested whether this sort of experience could become a valuable part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) by including an hour-long session midway through a 12-week CBT course.

    Dr Gega said: “People with social anxiety are afraid that they will draw attention to themselves and be negatively judged by others in social situations. Many will either avoid public places and social gatherings altogether, or use safety behaviours to cope – such as not making eye contact and being guarded or hyper-vigilant towards others.

    “Paradoxically, this sort of behaviour draws attention to people with social anxiety and feeds into their beliefs that they don’t fit in.

    “We wanted to see whether practising social situations in a virtual environment could help.”

    Paul Strickland from Xenodu, the company behind the virtual environment system, said: “Our system uses video capture to project a user’s life-size image on screen so that they can watch themselves interacting with custom-scripted and digitally edited video clips.

    “It isn’t a head-mounted display – which anxious people may find uncomfortable,” he added. “Instead, the user observes from an out-of-body perspective. They can then simultaneously view themselves and interact with the characters of the film.”

    Dr Gega’s project focused on six socially anxious young men recovering from psychosis who also have debilitating social anxiety. The participants engaged with a range of scenarios, some of which were designed to feature rude and hostile people. The virtual environments encouraged participants to practice small-talk, maintain eye contact, test beliefs that they wouldn’t know what to say, and resist safety behaviour such as looking at the floor or being hyper-vigilant.

    The main benefits of using these virtual environments in therapy was that it helped participants notice and change anxious behaviours in a safe, controlled environment which could be rehearsed over and over again. Participants were found to drop safety behaviours and take greater social risks. And while realistic to an extent, the ‘fake’ feeling of staged scenarios in itself proved to be a virtue.

    “It helped the participants question their interpretation of social cues,” said Dr Gega. “For example, if they thought that one of the characters was looking at them ‘funny’ they could immediately see that there must be an alternative explanation because the scenarios were artificial.

    “Another useful aspect of the system is that it can be tailored to address specific fears in social situations – for example a fear of performance, intimacy, or crowds,” she added.

    “Two of the patients said that the system felt “weird and surreal”, so the element of having an out-of-body experience is something to study further in future – particularly because psychosis itself is defined by a distorted perception of reality.

    “This research explored the feasibility and potential added value of using virtual environments as part of CBT. The next stage would be to carry out a randomised, controlled comparison of CBT with and without the virtual environment system to test whether using the system as a therapy tool leads to greater or quicker symptom improvement.”

    Mr Strickland added: “I hope our technology can help make a difference to the lives of people experiencing social anxiety and other specific anxiety conditions for which controlled exposure to feared situations is part of therapy. It is particularly versatile because it doesn’t need technical expertise to set up and use. And the library of scenarios can be built on to capture different types of exposure environments needed in day-to-day clinical practice.”

    ‘Virtual Environments Using Video Capture for Social Phobia with Psychosis’ is published by the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking.