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Photo: Professor Russell Jackson helps student journalist Lisa Laughlin adjust the virtual reality helmet.

Contact & Location


Psychology & Communications Studies

Physical Address:
Student Health Center 206
PHONE: (208) 885-6324
FAX:(208) 885-7710


Mailing Address:
University of Idaho
c/o Psychology & Communication Studies
Student Health Center 206
875 Perimeter Drive MS 3043
Moscow, ID  83844-3043

Stepping into the Virtual World

Russell Jackson helping student Lisa Laughlin to put on the virtual reality helmetIdaho staff and students use virtual technology to improve the real world

By Lisa Laughlin

Imagine designing the layout of a 2D world, uploading it to a program, and suddenly being able to walk around in that world. Sound a bit like something from the movie Inception? Well Idaho’s Human Factors program in the psychology department has turned that concept into something tangible with the recent installation of a virtual reality lab.

Housed in an empty records room in the basement of the student health building, the virtual reality lab may not look like much at first. But after the user dons a high-tech helmet, he/she is able to experience the sensations of a virtual environment without ever leaving the classroom floor.

“When someone puts on the helmet, he/she sees an entirely different world, and when he/she moves in the real world, they also move in the virtual world,” said psychology professor and primary investigator of the lab Russell Jackson, who has driven the creation of the virtual lab since his arrival on campus last year. “I use this lab for placing people in virtual environments that would be too dangerous in real life, such as on top of a steep cliff or over the side of a tall building.”

The special helmet is attached with infrared and inertia sensors, so the cameras located in the corners of the room will be able to accurately locate where the user is in space, allowing the program to sync the user’s movements with that of the avatar moving in the virtual environment. Two state of the art computers also aid the process. One computer creates the image of the virtual world, using a high-end video card, while another computer is solely dedicated to running the cameras to orient the user.

“The limit on this lab is essentially human imagination,” said Jackson. If one can design it, one can set up the environment for testing in a virtual setting on any scale. For example, one could walk around inside a life-sized human cell to better understand its internal functions.

This ability has a huge impact on research capabilities for the department. For example, in studies of social reactions one could test for discrimination in a given environment, or in studies of safety and design one could look at how people board or exit a bus in order to create a more efficient design. Interactive objects can also be added to the program, such as birds in a city square that scatter when the avatar walks up to them, to allow the user to participate in a more life-like environment.

The lab is crucial to Jackson’s own professional research, which he began as a graduate student at the University of Texas. His experiments focus on observing how people perceive and navigate the world in order to prevent falling, the biggest cause of injury in the workplace. He is interested in researching why fall rates have increased despite extra safety precautions that have been put into place, such as railings.

Labs like this can also be used for treating anxiety disorders, such as a fear of heights. In one scenario, a user is asked to walk across a plank, which appears to be over a bottomless pit. Although the user is safely on the flat surface of the classroom in real life, he/she still experiences the anxiety or other emotions associated with the event and reacts as if they were actually in the situation—like treading a careful foot-in-front-of-foot line across the virtual “plank” with arms spread out for balance.

“I also use this lab for placing people in virtual environments where we might not be able to collect data about their perception without being interrupted, such as in the middle of campus in the middle of the day,” said Jackson. “This lab allows me to take people from one environment to the next in a flash, rather than the long time that it would take to go from one place to another.”

Additional components of the lab include a second helmet to allow for multiple users in an environment, and separate infrared markers that when strategically placed can allow the user to walk through doors or pick up an object.

“When it came to actually installing the equipment and making it work, I heavily relied, and continue to rely, on [Idaho] Neuroscience Ph. D. student Roger Lew,” said Jackson. Lew tackled the difficult base programming jobs, making the process of loading an environment for trials more user-friendly to graduate students, who will only have to work with a 3 to 4 hour learning curve.

Although the initial funding for the lab came from income generated by online classes taught by his department colleagues, and through Dean Katherine Aiken’s outreach fund, Jackson envisions the lab as a long-term investment generating future research opportunities.

“This kind of lab allows me to be competitive for large federal grants in ways that I wouldn’t be competitive otherwise and ways that help financially support our university outside of my lab,” said Jackson. “It also allows me to give an unparalleled education to the undergraduate Research Assistants that work in my lab and the Graduate Students in our department who work with me.”

Jackson hopes the lab will soon be available to other researchers and students across campus. Students in a course in the Virtual Technology and Design (VTD) program are already slated to work in the lab this semester. The lab will allow VTD students to experience the worlds they create in detail, such as walking around a building they designed to study the architecture to scale and from different perspectives.

Regardless, the virtual reality lab will provide unique opportunities for research at Idaho for many years to come.