Virtual reality lab aids social work research

 woman on the left wears a headset with goggles that simulates a real-life experienceParticipants engage in a virtual reality session. The woman on the left wears a headset with goggles that simulates a real-life experience. Virtual reality experiences can aid some types of social work research and treatment methods. The University of Alabama is installing a lab this summer, the third U.S. university to do so.

Attending a virtual party might sound more like a video game experience than a sophisticated research tool. But according to Amy Traylor, assistant professor at the University of Alabama school of social work, virtual reality experiences can aid some types of social work research and treatment methods.

“We know that people in a clinical setting or research situation may react one way in a very controlled lab setting, but very different in a real world environment,” Traylor said. “Virtual reality gives us a platform where we can have a natural life setting with the control of a clinician’s office.”

A virtual reality lab is set to open at the school this summer, making it the third school of social work in the U.S. to have one. The first is the University of Southern California, followed by the University of Houston in Texas.

Traylor, who has a background in virtual reality research, will oversee the lab and use it to simulate real life situations. The simulations will allow her to examine triggers in volunteers primarily with substance abuse issues, and see how someone reacts in a setting that is as close to real life as possible.

“For example, if someone is trying to quit smoking, we can set up a virtual reality experience where we place them in a situation where a cigarette craving could be triggered,” she said. “We would be able to have them in a bar setting where they could hear music playing, feel the vibrations of the music, walk around the bar, see other people at the bar, and smell cigarette smoke.”

Emilio Coirini, director of business development at Virtually Better Inc. — the company installing the system at the University of Alabama — said the lab consists of a ramped-up computer and software, headset with goggles, an olfactory system for scents, and a vibration platform.

“Virtual reality isn’t necessarily new technology, but by using it in this setting, to reference a Chevy ad, ‘this is not your father’s psychology session,’” he said.

Traylor said there is not always an opportunity to work with a client in the environment that causes them difficulties, and virtual reality is a way to bridge the gap.

“During simulation, the individual will be immersed in an environment for a few minutes. At the end of the immersion, they will see a blank screen and they will be asked several questions about the intensity of their cigarette craving, for example, and how much they’re thinking about smoking,” she said.

Clinically this is great, Traylor said, as these sorts of things are good assessment tools.

Whoever is manning the system has contact with the individual in the virtual environment, Traylor pointed out.

“If a social worker is working with a client and they see they’re doing something really well, they can provide reassurance and compliments,” she said.

Lucinda Roff, interim dean and professor emeritus at the University of Alabama, said she is excited about the opening of the lab, which is scheduled for this month.

“With this resource, Dr. Traylor and her students will be able to develop social work interventions and can help people with a wide variety of problems — phobias, substance abuse issues and reactions to trauma, to name a few,” Roff said.

Although Traylor will be the primary user of the lab, she said some Ph.D. students working on dissertations and MSW students are welcome to use it after approval for their own research purposes.

“This is not something that could replace human interaction, but meant to enhance treatment,” Traylor said. “It’s a way to experiment to try something new and to see how that fits for the individual client.”