Virtual Psychology: Introduction of A New Column

by Nancy Picard, M.S.


On the cover of the March 1996 issue of the APA Monitor, a man wearing thick black goggles and dressed in a blue shirt, red tie, and brown trousers leaps through a blaze of white light and merges with the computer screen. Don't you dare to look before you leap, the image seems to suggest, but go ahead and dive right in!

Whoa! Despite all the recent hype, according to the article written by Beth Azar of the Monitor staff, psychologists have long been assisting with the development of virtual reality technologies. Only recently, they have also started creating virtual scenarios with treatment interventions in mind.

The article by Azar quotes psychologists interested in VR for use in providing assistance to people who have impaired vision, as well as those who are developing air traffic controller training programs.

VR has traditionally been used by the military for developing pilot and tank training programs, and employs the use of "overlapping images" to account for the normal vision system at distances of approximately 6 feet or less. Given that too much data might overwhelm the subject, psychologists work with system designers to discern which information is crucial to mimicking reality in a VR environment.

The black goggles depicted in the above-mentioned image are for "head tracking," allowing the computer to change images as reflected by the user's head position, which approximates eye level at a standing position. Developers are currently creating VR protocols on the basis of trials with different interactive systems, such as immersion with goggles and searching via head movements compared to the use of joysticks or handball tracking devices. Preliminary research cited by Azar indicates that subjects who are completely immersed in their VR environments first, may then search the space later better than those merely using hand tracking devices.

VR has been applauded elsewhere. Researchers at Harvard claim they have used VR to treat people with fear of heights successfully. But caution is required: due to the discrepancies in vision and body movements, VR can cause motion sickness and a host of other complaints.

This overview was just a sampling of what how virtual reality and psychology have been defined by one of the leaders of the mainstream psychological press. Because this column is new to Self-Help and Psychology magazine, we are inviting readers to help us to operationalize (to concretely define for research purposes) the term "virtual psychology."

As I understand the term, this column will include articles on the use of the internet and other interactive materials by psychologists and those seeking mental health assistance. We use the term virtual to describe any cyber-setting that most closely mimics the traditional therapeutic setting of a counselor or mental health professional with one client or with a group of people, the area in which "psychology" is employed with the purpose of enhancing everyone's mental health.

In that vein, virtual psychology may be as complex or as simple as on-line therapy in a "chat room" with a psychologist, a bio-feed back device one can connect to her/his computer, a list maintained for those seeking information regarding mental health issues, the use of an internet phone device or video cameras, to cruising the web for mental health-related information uploaded in various web sites, including ours.

Some of the columns will also deal with internet ethics. We will query various psychologists and other mental health providers who have web pages on the internet on how they use the internet and other interactive technology to reach others, and the positive and negative impact they see resulting from internet use.

Given that internet use at this stage cannot be controlled regarding misrepresentation, I am especially interested in internet ethics and how it might impact on internet psychotherapy. Consider the following: a March 24, 1996 Chicago Tribune story by Steve Mills highlights the plight of kidnappings that have occurred via the Internet. Citing sources such as the FBI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Mills describes how people have misrepresented themselves in order to arrange visits with vulnerable children, some of whom have been abducted and abused. Any discussion or input on the ways in which we might safeguard both clients and mental health providers in the world of "virtual psychology" is most welcome!

And, last but not least, I will keep professionals updated on how they can create their own interactive, multimedia mental health resources! The latest tools, products, and equipment requirements will be coming your way as the industry races to make "desk top" multimedia as available as desk top publishing. Samples of my own work will be available at the end of the summer (1996) for users to download to their own desktops.

We cannot promise the splendor of leaping through your computer into a virtual world where everything is fantastic and exciting, but we may be able to provide a few doorways through which you may want to peak before you leap.

Part 1 - How
Part 2 - Why
Part 3 - Where VP Works and Where It Fails



Nancy M. Picard, M.S. has background in journalism and communications, as well as cross cultural consulting for the US Peace Corps. She will complete her MS in Spring 1996, and begin doctoral studies in the summer. Her recent work has been in multimedia design and production toward developing interactive media for self-help purposes, as well as the design of instructional materials for the University of Wisconsin's Schools of Education and Nursing.

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