Christopher Rex is working on a Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine. This is a world away from his original undergraduate majorart. What influenced the change was a KDI-funded project called "Virtual Environments and Behavior." The projectís PI was Dr. Jack Loomis, and the co-PI was Dr. James Blascovich, both professors of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).
When Rex first started his undergraduate work at UCSB, his main interests were 3-D modeling and computer art. He considered switching to a psychology major and then decided he was most interested in biopsychologythe biological aspects of behavior. "One of the big things that shifted me into science was this KDI project with Dr. Blascovich," he says.
Rex started out working as a research assistant in Dr. Blascovichís lab. He then did his senior thesis with Dr. Blascovich and finally worked as a lab technician on the KDI project. The project involved immersing people in virtual physical and social environments and studying their behavior. These virtual environments provide a valuable new tool for basic and applied research in the educational, behavioral, and social sciences.
Rex explains, "Participants would come one at a time into the lab that we were going to test, and they would put on a headset that immersed them in a digitally animated, 3-D virtual environment. When they moved their head and when they walked around the room, sensors in the room picked up these position changes and then altered their virtual environment. This made it appear to the participants that they were moving inside of and interacting with this animated world that we had made for them."
To take this a step further, the team networked together three separate rooms so they could have virtual representations of people in these separate rooms. "We had some audio devices that we used, and we used lip-synching for the animation," says Rex. "So now people could start interacting with these representations that were being controlled by people in these other rooms. Once we had created these fake worlds that the experimenter had almost complete control over, there were tons of really cool things that we could start exploring and manipulating." Even though the representations (called avatars) of the other people were being controlled by someone in another room, the experimenters would write computer algorithms that would change what the participants saw.
Rexís role in the project was to run experiments. "I wrote the algorithms, I designed the 3-D virtual environment, and then I carried out the experiment," he says.
His current research has taken him in a completely different directionto study how the long-term potential of the brain could be enhanced. "Weíre basically looking at biological correlates in learning and memory and how those can be enhanced or created," says Rex. "What weíre trying to do is identify the biological mechanisms of memory."
Rex credits involvement in the KDI project with influencing his career. "It didnít influence my choice of what science to go into, but it gave me a lot of skills that otherwise I would not have," he says. One important skill is data analysis. "I think the data analysis that I did in that lab was very intensive, because there was a lot of data collected," says Rex. "The work that I do now is very similar in that wayitís also very data intensive. So working on the KDI project gave me a lot of skills for data analysis."
The other skill that Rex learned and took with him from the KDI project was computer programming. "I didnít know how to do any computer programming before I was in that lab," he says. "Andy Beall [Dr. Andrew Beall, Assistant Researcher at the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at UCSB] taught me how to program from the time I started. By the time it was my third year there, I was very comfortable with putting it all together and designing virtual environments." Rex has found that computer programming is a handy tool to have for many projects: "It gives me an edge over other graduate students," he says. "I have extra tools to apply to my research, and all thanks to my involvement in the KDI project."
To learn more about virtual environments and behavior, visit the Web site of the Research Center for Virtual Environments & Behavior at UCSB: http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/recveb
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