Media Releases

Virtual reality could spot real-world impairments

November 15, 2012

TORONTO, ON — A vir­tu­al real­i­ty test being devel­oped at UTSC might do a bet­ter job than pen­cil-and-paper tests of pre­dict­ing whether a cog­ni­tive impair­ment will have real-world con­se­quences.

The test devel­oped by Kon­stan­tine Zakza­nis, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy, and col­leagues, uses a com­put­er-game-like vir­tu­al world and asks vol­un­teers to nav­i­gate their ways through tasks such as deliv­er­ing pack­ages or run­ning errands around town.

“If we’re being asked to tell if peo­ple could do things like work, house­clean, and take care of their kids, we need to show that our tests pre­dict per­for­mance in the real world,” says Zakza­nis.

But stan­dard tests don’t do that very well, he says. Although tests that ask peo­ple to do things like solve math prob­lems, sort cards, remem­ber names, or judge the rel­a­tive posi­tions of lines in visu­al two dimen­sion­al space, can detect cog­ni­tive impair­ments caused by cir­cum­scribed lesions fol­low­ing a stroke or head injury, they’re not very good at pre­dict­ing who will be able to func­tion in the real world and who won’t.

That’s a prob­lem for cog­ni­tive­ly impaired peo­ple who might be denied insur­ance ben­e­fits or work­ers com­pen­sa­tion based on tests that are insen­si­tive to demon­strat­ing their impair­ment. It is akin to hav­ing a bro­ken arm with no x‑ray to prove it.

The vir­tu­al real­i­ty test is called the Mul­ti­task­ing in the City Task. Test-tak­ers use a game con­troller to maneu­ver their way through an arti­fi­cial world. In one test, they are giv­en 15 min­utes to accom­plish vir­tu­al tasks such as going to the bank, going shop­ping and pay­ing bills.

In anoth­er task, they have to deliv­er pack­ages to offices giv­en incom­plete infor­ma­tion – for instance, by rea­son­ing that a caterer’s office is more like­ly to get a mag­a­zine about the food indus­try than is a lawyer’s. Yet anoth­er task requires the test-tak­er to watch mov­ing assem­bly lines for defec­tive prod­ucts.

In a paper pub­lished in Applied Neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy: Adult, the UTSC researchers test­ed 13 peo­ple who had suf­fered stroke or tra­mau­tic brain imagery, giv­ing them a bat­tery of stan­dard tests as well as the vir­tu­al-real­i­ty test. They also gave them a ques­tion­naire to deter­mine how severe­ly their cog­ni­tive deficits impact­ed their dai­ly lives.

The stan­dard tests didn’t pre­dict how big an impact the cog­ni­tive deficits had in real life. But the vir­tu­al real­i­ty test did. Although the results are based on a small set of sub­jects, Zakza­nis thinks that fur­ther work will con­firm the use­ful­ness of the new method.

The paper was co-authored by Diana Jovanovs­ki, Zakza­nis, Zachari­ah Camp­bell, Suzanne Erb and David Nuss­baum, all of UTSC, and Les­ley Rut­tan of the Toron­to Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Insti­tute. It is avail­able here.


Don Camp­bell
Media & Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Assis­tant
Com­mu­ni­ca­tions & Pub­lic Affairs
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough
Phone: 416–208-2938