Virtual Reality on Capitol Hill 2000 CNSF Exhibit

President Clinton's budget recommended a 20% increase for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Many members of Congress, while generally supportive of basic science and NSF, have been asking hard questions. Where does all this money go? Can science really handle such a big increase? What makes this cause more important to the United States than other issues?

In an effort to answer these questions, the Coalition for National Science Funding (CNSF) held its annual congressional exhibition on May 17, 2000. NSF-supported researchers from around the country came to Capitol Hill to explain their research to lawmakers. Many researchers reminded their congressional representatives that although NSF is turning 50 this year, its mission is as important as the day it was founded, and the science it supports remains full of untapped potential.

Psychologists Andrew Beall, PhD, and James Blascovich, PhD, from the University of California at Santa Barbara represented APA and demonstrated their recent research using virtual reality to explore issues of cognitive and social psychology. An eye-catching display, combined with the opportunity for senior policymakers to don a virtual reality helmet, made APA's booth a main attraction. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA), Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD), Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), and Rep. John Larson (D-CT) were on hand to step into the interactive world. NSF Director Rita Colwell also discussed the research findings with these two stellar psychologists, then tried on the helmet herself.

While a realistic virtual world might just seem like a cool video game, Beall and Blascovich, working with colleague Jack Loomis, PhD, use virtual reality as a behavioral research tool. They are able to place subjects in unique situations, and record all their movements and actions. For instance, in one of the demonstration worlds, the viewer is situated on the top of a high cliff, standing at the edge of a deep precipice filled with water. The subject can give a command to raise the water level (essentially decreasing the height of the cliff). For someone who has a significant fear of heights, this amount of control can help to gain mastery over fear, first in the virtual world, and then in the real world.

In a second example, by having someone navigate through a virtual maze, it is possible to examine how the brain maps space, both in two and three dimensions. These tools are still developing, both in speed and in resolution, but behavioral scientists like Blascovich and Beall have already seen the enormous research potential of virtual reality. Their message on Capitol Hill was clear: without support from NSF, innovative and powerful research, such as using virtual reality to study human cognition and behavior, would not be possible.