UPDATED! Using NeosVR to Teach Courses at the University of Sydney

Hamish MacDougall is a professor at the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia, who has been keen to use the innovative social VR platform NeosVR as part of his teaching. Hamish has a long history of working in virtual reality, as noted in this 2017 profile of him and his work:

Hamish McDougall looks like a physical embodiment of the cyberpunk dream. Sporting a long black ponytail with a sleek undercut, and black clothing, he looks like a character ripped directly from an 80s sci-fi epic, set in a post industrial dystopia. McDougall runs the Virtual Reality Openlab, a sprawling tech lab designed to build experiments in the virtual world…

For the last four years, the lab has operated under the Sydney Human Factors Research group, an organization within the Psychology department. Although it has a wide field of study, it looks primarily at the Vestibular system, which is a sensory complex in the inner ear that is in charge of your sense of spatial orientation and balance…

So far the biggest ‘deliverable’ to come from the human factors lab’s four years of existence is their work developing a virtual reality therapy system for patients of vestibular disorders, who suffer limited inner ear functions. This means that they not only have issues balancing, but can also suffer dizziness and unease sitting still. As Hamish points out, among all persons with sensory impairments, those with vestibular disorders may be the most inhibited in terms of their daily life.

While the system invented by the team doesn’t cure vestibular disease, it does allow patients to improve their balance and mobility. In the first 20 patients to use the program, feedback received from the patients showed that 100% of patients that had used the program had seen some improvement from the using of the program.

Since 2017, Hamish is one of many educators around the world who has embraced NeosVR as a teaching platform, using it to conduct a class on Virtual Reality Therapy in virtual reality last year during the coronavirus pandemic:

Virtual spiders and skyscrapers are among the tools being used to teach University of Sydney students during the COVID-19 shutdown, as a virtual reality laboratory in the School of Psychology has been transformed into a classroom for learning about a range of physical and psychological conditions.

Typically used for research and selective teaching on virtual reality therapies for conditions including phobias, PTSD, pain, and eating disorders, the lab is now being used solely to teach these therapies to undergraduate and postgraduate students.

“Given in-person face-to-face teaching has been suspended, I decided to lend VR headsets to my students so they can continue to ‘attend’ my seminar series on Virtual Reality Therapy,” Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall said.

The Virtual Reality Therapy class took students to the World Trade Center bombing as part of their discussion about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Image source: the Sydney Human Factors Research Lab

Associate Professor MacDougall, who directs the University’s Sydney Human Factors Research Group, begins each lesson with a student-led literature discussion. Students then discuss the immersive stimuli that virtually surrounds them.

In a lesson on phobias, for example, students handled virtual spiders and looked down from the roofs of tall buildings. In a lesson on eating disorders, students could adjust the body-mass index for their own avatar (digital character) and track their eye movements to reveal preferences for healthy and unhealthy foods.

But the School of Psychology is not the only group at the University of Sydney working with NeosVR! The School of Geosciences is using the social VR platform to build a virtual campus:

The virtual world…is being built in NEOS VR. It is made of a collection of 3D assets, some I created many years ago in Sketchup, others bought on various market places (cgtrader, Sketchfab etc), and others build and programmed directly in NEOS. Most 3D rock samples and 3D outcrops comes from various authors and were downloaded from Sketchfab.com…

The fully functional geological compass was designed in NEOS and programmed using NEOS’ LogiX visual scripting language. While building virtual worlds in NEOS, I often receive the unsolicited help of many curious NEOS’ users. TinBin was kind enough to fetch his friend H3BO3 and LeonClement who helped with the programing of my virtual compass. My colleague A/Prof Hamish McDougall (School of Psychology at the University of Sydney) added the dynamic ocean to my etopo models, and VRxist improved the display the earthquake dataset. GearBell explained to me how to optimize my world for fast download. I am also grateful to Tomas Mariancik (aka Frooxius), head developer and creator of NEOS VR, for his availability and willingness to help me and other newbies getting started with NEOS.

The Virtual Campus of the School of Geoscience at the University of Sydney in NeosVR (image source)

You can view several videos of their ongoing work in NeosVR on this webpage.

People like Hamish MacDougall are effective ambassadors for the use of social VR platforms like NeosVR! I look forward to seeing where the University of Sydney goes from here in their innovative use of virtual reality in teaching.

UPDATE August 13th, 2021: I had a text chat with Hamish via Discord, and I quote part of what he told me here:

Re. the class in Virtual Reality Therapy – yes that was taught in Neos. We started in the lab with headsets connected to a dozen powerful desktop PCs but after the first few weeks all face-to-face teaching at the University was discontinued due to the pandemic. We hastily handed out Quests and basic instructions for connecting from home. Without any preparation I though this had little chance of success but worth a shot. I would have been happy if just one Psychology student could connect and was amazed when they all did!

This advanced seminar series (10 x 2 hours) for Psychology Honours students covered VR Therapy for Phobias, PTSD, OCD, Eating Disorders, Autism, Problem Gambling, Substance Abuse, Dementia, Stroke, and Pain so it made a lot of sense to do it in VR so the students could experience all the applications. Neos (and its neuro-diverse community) also provided the opportunity to invite people with lived experience to tell and show the students all about their conditions, so I think this was quite compelling. For example, the guest for Autism passed around items from her collection of stim toys and took us to one of her safe places. The guest for Stroke demonstrated the avatar we had prepared with yoked arm movements (where the arm on the parallelized side appears to follow the arm on the healthy side). The chap saved a copy to his inventory and came back a few weeks later saying that using it had really helped with his recovery!

Anyway, Neos is amazing for education and research – the ‘killer app’ for academics in my opinion…We have demonstrated hundreds of VR applications without the skills and time that would be required in Unity or Unreal.

Thanks, Hamish!

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One thought on “UPDATED! Using NeosVR to Teach Courses at the University of Sydney”

  1. Hello Ryan, I am grateful to see NEOS’s School of Geoscience’s Virtual Campus featured in your article. All credit to the NEOS development team, and its community of users, in particular Hamish who introduced me to the world of VR in August 2019. I built the campus starting from scratch… this means buying my first PC ever (I am a Mac user tragic since 1990 …) so I could get access to NEOS. Over the years I created lots of 3D geo assets to teach geology, and through my research I also produce many 3D geological models. This helped me to quickly put together the virtual campus. All the best, Patrice

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