“2017
Tech //

Unreal: I spent the morning at the University’s virtual reality research lab

Are the VR Openlab's research goals actually a reality, or a distant virtual dream?

Image: Aidan Molins Image: Aidan Molins

Hamish McDougall looks like a physical embodiment of the cyberpunk dream. Sporting a long black ponytail with a sleek undercut, and black clothing, he looks like a character ripped directly from an 80s sci-fi epic, set in a post industrial dystopia. McDougall runs the Virtual Reality Openlab, a sprawling tech lab designed to build experiments in the virtual world. It occupies a sizable chunk of space next to the Brendan MacCallum Learning Hub in the Griffith Taylor Building. Yes — this is absolutely that place across the road from Manning Bar where there is a mannequin with the Guy Fawkes mask on it.

For the last four years, the lab has operated under the Sydney Human Factors Research group, an organisation within the Psychology department. Although it has a wide field of study, it looks primarily at the Vestibular system, which is a sensory complex in the inner ear that is in charge of your sense of spacial orientation and balance.

When asked to put the achievements of the Virtual Reality Openlab lab into quantitative terms, Hamish was unable, and unwilling, to; “I wouldn’t want to say we’re the biggest or the best or the most high tech,” he says, going against the ego inflation of many other virtual reality pioneers, who have often hyped their own work into oblivion. Though he cares about VR, McDougall seems determined not to do the same.

In the past, innovators have failed extraordinarily at making virtual reality experiences. In the 1990s, companies experimented with headsets that created virtual images not with LED screens, but by beaming lasers into your eyes. In fact, Hamish has been in the virtual reality game long enough to have a few of these duds on a shelf in the lab.

Several virtual reality headsets from the 1990s
The 90s were a weird time.

Distrustful of big players like Oculus, which was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion, virtual reality’s fifteen seconds in the big tech limelight isn’t of interest to Hamish. And either way, it doesn’t matter to his main goal — to use VR for research.

“Even if it all bombs I’m still just in it for research,” he says.

Even though VR has now ascended to lofty heights of the Silicon Valley buzz-sphere, the USyd lab maintains the gritty do-it-yourself practicality of virtual reality’s grassroots period. The lab is not just a site to experiment with VR, but a place to build the equipment that allows those experiments to take place. The lab’s workshop spaces used to hack together research gear which is then given to institutions around the world (especially those in poorer countries that have smaller medical budgets) that would like to do virtual reality research but who don’t have the cash for shiny new factory built solutions.

“We try and dumb down a 150,000 machine to make a $100 machine and then give away the $100 machine.”

In fact, not even NASA was able to shake Hamish’s penchant for completing high tech projects on a shoestring budget. After working for them briefly in the 2000s, Hamish accepted a project from the aerospace giant which was designed to help astronauts with vestibular issues, both when in space and also when returning to earth’s gravitational field. He completed the apparatus for the project — a huge spacecraft movement simulator, designed to train astronauts to deal create and measure the effect of motion sickness — in a third of the $300,000 budget allocated for it. He used the remaining funds to make two more simulators, one of which he was able to keep, and the other he gave to a colleague.

A space simulating device
Half of a polyethylene water storage unit built on top of a laminate cellulose substructure

“We did that by skimping,” he tells me, “they wanted to sell us carbon fibre cabinets for $30,000, but because we’re Aussies, we just bought $500 plastic water tanks.”

“This, for example, is just three sheets of plywood screwed together— but NASA wouldn’t let us call it that,” he says, pointing at the simulator’s base. “They insisted we call it a laminate cellulose substructure.”  

In a Youtube video demonstrating VR on the lab’s site, Hamish sits in a virtual casino alongside a taller looking man with dark shaggy hair. On his back is a t-shirt for with the word ‘Voat’ across it. Voat is a right wing clone of the popular link-sharing website Reddit, started in 2015 by disgruntled members of the social news aggregator, when the then CEO, Ellen Pao, banned five of the site’s most hateful communities. The explosive backlash online which ensued served as a kind of alt-right prelude, a first emanating pulse of a right wing dudeocalypse whose magnum opus was thrust into the United States presidency last November.

Many men migrated to the virtual to escape a world that, due to progressive social politics, they felt alienated from. But with last November’s election, many of those same men realised they might not have to anymore. In this sense, the guy with the ‘Voat’ shirt is emblematic of many in the tech world. Just last September, Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey had his sophoclean journey in the industry come to a close when a journalist for The Daily Beast discovered that he was using his newly found riches to fund Donald Trump’s meme machine. Similarly, Hamish tells me the ‘Voat’ guy had to part ways with the group when his politics became too obnoxious and unbearable for the office. “I’m not completely sure, but I do know that he did have some very strange political ideas. He was all ‘Trump Trump Trump’” he says.

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So far the biggest ‘deliverable’ to come from the human factors lab’s four years of existence is their work developing a virtual reality therapy system for patients of vestibular disorders, who suffer limited inner ear functions. This means that they not only have issues balancing, but can also suffer dizziness and unease sitting still. As Hamish points out, among all persons with sensory impairments, those with vestibular disorders may be the most inhibited in terms of their daily life.

“Vestibular function is pretty underrated. Everyone knows about their vision and about their hearing but not everyone knows about their vestibular function because its so automated that it does everything for you — until something goes wrong.”

While the system invented by the team doesn’t cure vestibular disease, it does allow patients to improve their balance and mobility. In the first 20 patients to use the program, feedback received from the patients showed that 100% of patients that had used the program had seen some improvement from the using of the program.

But Hamish wouldn’t be satisfied with a successful test of a demo program. He is itching to go further and use simpler, cheaper tech that utilises smartphones and hacked Wii Fit scales, seen above, to spread the therapy amongst more patients around the country and world.

The road ahead for the Virtual Reality Openlab is uphill, since all Hamish’s shiny gadgets are almost useless without an in-house developer to write software for them. This is a luxury that at present, Hamish just can’t afford — with VR software developers getting huge salaries at startups fuelled by juicy venture capital funding, it can be hard for a small lab like Hamish’s to compete. And despite it’s location within a university that markets itself as forward thinking, the University executive are reluctant to commit to funding.

Given past failures in the virtual reality landscape, perhaps this cautiousness is wise. But  regardless of what the future holds, the lab’s work is a refreshing reminder that in the midst of a tech milieu dominated by products that either don’t exist, aren’t useful, or are downright unappealing, that VR has potential to transcend flimsy virtual creations and improve people’s actual lives.

Hamish using a VR medical training demo he created, while a screen shows me a view of the surgery room.