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.

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.


Tracking nonverbal behavior in High Fidelity

Interaction.pngTracking the movements of participants in virtual environments is key to our research.  The above screenshot shows the summed movements of two participants’ heads and hands as they converse in High Fidelity, a shared virtual environment that allows users in different locations to meet in virtual worlds.  Omar Shaikh created the tracking visualizer, and Yilu Sun is conducting experiments using this platform.