Guest Post: Visiting Scholar, Carlos Álvarez Barroso

Screen shot from Carlos’s program OCD simulation game.

This past June and July I visited the Virtual Embodiment lab as a visiting scholar. I worked on a project that aimed to raise awareness about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder through a Virtual Reality video game experience. The theory behind the video game is that we can simulate the experience of OCD by putting the player through negative interactions that mimic the symptoms of OCD. I researched the different components that make up a lucid experience and hope that by going through similar obstacles to people with OCD, the player could increase their empathy.

For this experiment, I chose to disregard the more abstract aspects of OCD, like intrusive thoughts, and focused on the ritualistic compulsions of the disorder. To make a realistic narrative, I used testimony from the Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Association of Spain:

“In the mornings, it took me no one knew how long to leave the house to go to school. My brain told me “Ana, every morning before you leave the house, you have to make sure all your shoes are perfectly aligned in the wardrobe”. For almost a year, I spent at least an hour a day trying to get my shoes in the
wardrobe “right” so I could leave for school. Until it didn’t feel “right”, I couldn’t stop.”

I worked with two undergraduate research assistants, Kevin Kim and Ishan Juneja, to build the program in Unity 3D. During the experience, the player finds themself in the protagonist’s bedroom.

Ana’s bedroom.

After a brief introduction that includes the testimony of the main character, they must perfectly align their shoes. Meanwhile, a countdown timer indicates the time remaining before they have to go to school. However, the shoes will never appear perfectly aligned, leading to a “Game Over” screen and the end of the game.

The shoes, in disarray.

Thus, the aim is to develop a “ludonarrative of awareness.” In other words, this project intersects ways of transmitting emotions and information between individuals and groups of people using the game narrative.

As a next step I will present the current version of the game to the Grupo de Investigación en Investigación y Tratamiento de Obsesiones y Compulsiones (I’TOC) at University of Valencia for feedback and modify it accordingly.

About the Author

Carlos Álvarez Barroso is a second year PhD student at the University of Seville, Spain. He worked at the Virtual Embodiment Lab this summer as part of Cornell’s Office of Global Learning visiting scholar program. He is interested in the representation of mental illness in video game and its relationship with stigma.

He has participated in several projects on the analysis of the discourse of different social issues in audiovisual culture. In addition, he has a great interest in the guidelines for the design of video games from the semiotic systematization of its components. Currently, he combines his research work with an active participation in various Spanish media related to pop culture as a cultural disseminator.

Immersive Media in Medicine Symposium

On October 24th and 25th, the Cornell campuses came together for a cross-campus Immersive Media in Medicine Symposium. Meeting at the Belfer Research Building in NYC, approximately 175 people registered to attend the conference in person, with 25 joining remotely from the Ithaca campus.

The symposium, co-chaired by Dr. Andrea Stevenson Won and Dr. JoAnn Difedefocusing on translational research in immersive media (augmented and virtual reality) for use in medicine and healthcare education, offered talks, panel discussions, workshops, and a poster session.

The symposium included talks on Embodiment in Immersive Media, Accessibility in Immersive Media, Immersive Media and Entrepreneurship, and more. There were also panel discussions highlighting topics such as Immersive Media in Medical Education and Immersive Media in Psychiatry, as well as hands on workshops.

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Dr. Andrea Stevenson Won giving her talk on Embodiment in Immersive Media

PhD candidate Swati Pandita led a panel discussion highlighting VR for beginners, and VEL research assistants Hal Rives, Jessie Yee, and Josh Zhu, also participated.

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Graduate student Swati Pandita leading a panel discussion on VR for beginners. Panel members L-R: Mariel Emrich, Joshua Zhu, Hal Rives, Harrison Resnick, Jessie Yee.


VEL featured in Chronicle Article

The results of our first study in collaboration with the Cornell Physics Education Research Lab (C-PERL) were recently featured in the Cornell Chronicle:

Swati Pandita and Jack Madden

Thanks to Linda Glaser for her great article, which points out the importance of distinguishing between enthusiasm for VR and actual learning gains. VEL is currently  preparing to launch the second study in this series this semester.

Virtual Embodiment Lab Featured on Communication Breakdown

Last week, Andrea Stevenson Won sat down with her colleague, Christopher Byrne, for the latest installment of his podcast, Communication Breakdown, to chat about the Virtual Embodiment Lab.

20292669_10213506445359314_5323594906442723587_nOne of the newer labs in the Communication department, the VEL has the advantage of a wide array of students with varying skill sets in the lab. Some students are Communication majors, others are from Information Science and some join from the College of Engineering. This diverse research group is trained to program virtual worlds, run experiments (including safely spotting participants as they experience virtual worlds), and even explaining the lab’s research (like this blog post)!

Won credits the recent jump in interest in consumer virtual reality to the gaming industry. “Popular culture initially saw VR as a tool for the gaming community,” said Won. With headsets now becoming increasingly affordable, Won hopes to see the technology breakthrough at an “institutional level” prompting wider research in the clinical, educational and collaborative potential of virtual reality.

Regarding clinical applications, Christopher Byrne and skeptics around the world beg the question, “Does it work?” In short, yes. Won referenced research by Hunter Hoffman where VR was used for burn victims undergoing painful procedures where they found immersive VR technology to help reduce the pain. Now, I don’t think virtual beaches are going to replace anesthesia, but the power of this detail-rich technology is undeniable.

With all the good things about VR, there are some drawbacks Byrne knows first hand. “The first time I tried VR was my 50th birthday and I fell backward over a coffee table.” While this is a possible danger of the technology Won quickly explained that he was most likely not being properly spotted and, while knocking on wood, she has yet to experience any sort of injury in her lab.

Click here for the complete podcast and make sure to follow us on Twitter and Instagram @Cornell_VR for daily updates and cool inside info!

IEEE VR Conference 2018

Where was Professor Won from March 18th-22nd? Venice Beach? Nope. Aruba? Not quite. How about Reutlingen, Germany? You got it!

2018_logo.pngWon traveled to IEEE VR 2018, the 25th IEEE Conference on Virtual Reality and 3D User Interfaces at the Stadthalle Reutlingen in Reutlingen, Germany. On March 21st, Professor Won presented on a panel that discussed how social reality should work. Because there are now several social applications for virtual reality systems that are reaching a broader audience, more users are starting to immerse themselves in these environments for longer periods of time. By using these applications, users are performing tasks in different spaces with a different representation of humans.


The lab’s presence at the conference is not ephemeral, however. On March 21st, Omar Shaikh, a member of the Virtual Embodiment Lab since 2016, presented research from the VEL’s Idea Generation project headed by Yilu Sun.  The “Movement Visualizer for Networked Virtual Reality Platforms”  tracked and presented two individual’s live movements and their association (in this case, a measure of nonverbal synchrony) in a consumer networked virtual reality platform. Such a visualizer can be useful when comparing other variables such as the topics of conversation and self-reported variables (e.g., concentration level).


To take a deeper dive into the research, click here to see the poster abstract!  The code for the visualizer can also be downloaded through the published link in the abstract.

Virtual Reality and Teaching with Andrea Stevenson Won


Earlier this month, Virtual Embodiment Lab (VEL) Director Andrea Stevenson Won sat down with the folks at Teach Better to talk about VR, her research, and their impact on education.

The Teach Better Podcast, run by Doug McKee and Edward O’Neill, focuses on teachers in higher education and has created a community of people looking to better understand teachers and their tactics. They asked Professor Won to join the podcast to discuss her research exploring whether and how a virtual world can be created to provide a more engaging learning experience for students.

Won spoke on the advantages of simulations versus hands-on demonstrations, saying, “Often times physics experiments or demonstrations don’t work out as planned and the instructor has to spend valuable time tinkering with the apparatus. In VR you can get “perfect” results, every time.” This could be good for the next generation of students, who will be some of the most tech-savvy learners of our time.

Apart from learning, Professor Won also is interested in studying VR as a way to communicate. “Learning is usually a social activity and I think that we shouldn’t forget that when doing it in VR.”

Check out the podcast to listen to the entire interview, and browse past shows to find more teachers leading the way into the future. Also, keep this page bookmarked for ongoing updates on VEL research. 

Idea Generation


When you think of VR where does your mind go? Is it an ultra-realistic video game providing the complete entertainment experience? Or maybe it’s being able to view the Grand Canyon while sitting in your living room. But what about putting on a headset and going to work?

The Cornell Virtual Embodiment Lab is asking questions about collaboration and competition, something anyone with a 9-5 job is all too familiar with.

So why should you care about this? Well, if you’ve had to travel for work meeting you may want to pay attention. Companies spend a total of $111.7 billion a year in domestic travel for conventions, meetings, and training purposes. However, as VR technology becomes more advanced some of these trips may not be needed. Instead of flying to corporate headquarters employees could simply meet in a virtual space. This would save valuable resources in time, money, and fuel expenses that come with travel.

This study was headed by Yilu Sun, who came to the lab as a MPS student in Information Science.  Her experiment was inspired by an earlier study that tracked movement of participants in collaborating pairs to predict their success at a collaborative task.

In her study, she manipulated avatar appearance, and whether participants were competing or collaborating.  She is currently analyzing the data, and hopes to contribute to knowledge about how common social interactions may occur in virtual reality. “When we see the trends we notice all of these fantasies we see in sci-fi coming within our grasps. VR is a tool that can transition us into a more globally connected group of people.”


The Moon Over Ithaca

You can’t hop on Elon Musk’s rocket, but the Communication Department has an alternative.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said astronaut Neil Armstrong as he scurried across the moon’s surface in 1969. If Armstrong were alive today, I believe he would be beside himself to see the headway virtual reality is making in terms of allowing people to feel present in a virtual environment.

Teaching moon phases has been a subject that has challenged high school classrooms for years. While hands-on activities can be engaging, they also bring challenges–equipment can get misplaced or broken. Desktop simulations are accurate but perhaps less engaging. But what if we brought the moon right into your classroom? The Virtual Embodiment Lab is looking past cool visuals and video games and is searching for ways VR can help us better understand and learn abstract concepts.

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The idea is that by combining the immersive feeling of VR and by making it interactive students can have a more memorable experience when learning about the phases of the moon.

To keep Neil Armstrong and those alike interested, Professor Andrea Stevenson Won’s lab is currently working on a project that brings the hands-on activity into outer space. This project is in collaboration with Jonathan Schuldt, also in the Department of Communication, and Natasha Holmes in the Physics Department, and is funded by Oculus Education.

The graduate student leads for this project are Byungdoo Kim, Jack Madden, Swati Pandita, and Yilu Sun. Undergraduate team members include Philip Barrett, Caley Droof, Alice Nam,  Dwyer Tschantz and Kylie Youk. The environment was programmed with the assistance of Annie Hughey, Akhil Gopu, Anirudh Maddula, Frank Rodriguez, Albert Tsao, and Jason Wu.

Picture of sign for room 494

The Virtual Embodiment Lab is located on the 4th floor of Mann Library Building, in the Department of Communication.

Each graduate student has their own key role within the project. For instance, Kim and Pandita are running the experiments with assistance from undergraduate research assistants. This includes recruiting participants, assigning them to different conditions, helping them go through the experimental stimulus, measuring their responses and analyzing the data.

20180208_173531Byungdoo’s overall goal for the project is to “earn more experience in research in the immersive virtual environment and its impact on attitudinal and behavioral change.”

Byungdoo Kim is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication interested in pro-environmental judgment and decision-making.

JackMaddenHeadshot.jpgJack Madden is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the Astronomy Department at Cornell and has been working with Professor Holmes and Professor Won on this Moon phase project since the Fall. The main goal of their work is to further explore how learning takes place in virtual reality.

His research on exoplanets made him uniquely qualified to create the models of the moon and earth used in the virtual environment.

Pandita_HeadshotSwati Pandita is a first-year Communication Ph.D. student advised by Dr. Andrea S. Won in the Virtual Embodiment lab. Her interests lie in human-computer interaction and embodied cognition.

Her role is to oversee user experience (listening to user feedback about what can be improved with regards to the interface and interactions) and run the experiment. 

She aims to evaluate VR as an effective learning environment over traditional classroom styles (desktop interfaces or hands-on demos), as well as to provide a novel experience that is engaging and informative for students.

Yilu Sun.jpg

Yilu Sun graduated from Cornell with a Master’s degree in Information Science in December of 2017. Sun’s research interest includes nonverbal synchrony, avatar customization as well as UX design and research in virtual reality.

Yilu says, “At the early stage of the project, I worked with Jason Wu to create low to medium fidelity prototypes and presented to the team for feedback. Then I collaborated with Jack Madden and a team of CS students on programming the presentation of the quiz questions in the head-mounted display. Recently I am leading the UX study to find the most user-friendly quiz question design.”


This virtual expedition won’t be around for long, this semester the shuttle is coming back down to Earth!



Embodiment’s Effect on Behavior

Avatar creation is at the forefront of VR technology. Allowing individuals to be embodied by their own created avatar gives rise to a more immersive and engaging experience. But what about when their avatar doesn’t quite look like them? Senior research assistant Aishwariyah Dhyan Vimal aimed to answer this very question. 


The Grocery Store

In her recent study, participants were asked to shop in a virtual grocery store for one week’s worth of groceries in a “food desert”. Items varied in relative health benefits as well as price, with each participant having a budget of $60. The experimental variable was the assigned avatar, being either slender or obese.

Aishy set out to find whether or not the embodied avatar would affect the shopping habits of participants.

In an effort to make the experience more authentic, each participant’s created a unique head to their avatar using facial generation technology. Some participants noticed their avatar’s relative obesity immediately, one even saying, “Whoa, I’m fat.”

When asked what was behind this project, Aishy turned to public policy. “I looked at the public policy to reduce obesity and food deserts. The obesity epidemic in the USA continues to worsen and the implementation of the public policy will help reduce this problem.” The research also looked specifically at “food deserts” asking, “would participants be more supportive to public policy to reduce obesity?” 



Aishy noted the struggles she went through working on a senior honor thesis, having to learn many new skills to make everything work. “From creating a virtual reality environment in Unity, creating customizable avatar heads, Qualtrics survey, data analysis, and conducting an actual lab experiment.” The growing researcher ended with acknowledging how happy she is she pushed through it and finished.







Undergrad research assistants create new “Pit Demo” for VEL

The research team at Cornell University has recently created a “Pit Demo” to observe how the sense of “presence” affects us in a virtual world. Participants in this demo are able to freely move around a world that is an exact replica of the lab. Senior research assistant Sydney Smith modeled the rooms in 3DS Max and imported it into Unity 3D. Functionality was implemented by Jason Wu and Daniel Tagle, who wrote scripts to collapse the floor on keypress, allowing participants to see a “pit” appear below their feet leading to the floor of Mann Library below, and pick up and throw objects from the room into the pit.  Below, research assistant Claudia Morris tests out the pit demo.  The plank that she is standing on matches the digital model of the plank in the virtual scene, providing passive haptic feedback.

Get to know the under-graduate researchers working on this project


Daniel Tagle (on left) is a senior studying Communication. He’s worked on Perspective Taking in Virtual Reality and now is leading the Pit Demo Team. A research assistant in the lab since September 2016, Daniel originally became interested in working in VR, from being a really big gamer.  He is fascinated with how people can interact with others in virtual worlds. Daniel is looking forward to working with virtual reality for many years to come.

Jason Wu (on right) is a junior majoring in Information Science, with a minor in Architecture. He is interested in the spatial qualities of virtual reality, as well as its potential in facilitating social experiences. He recently competed in HackReality NYC, where his project “Wanderlust” was awarded first place.

SydneySydney Smith is a senior majoring Communication with a focus in media studies. Her main role in this project has been the modeling of the lab in 3DS Max, as well as the “Pit” in the demo. She hopes to continue modeling, creating more realistic worlds as well as sharpening her skills as a 360 videographer.