CSpotlight: Blending Virtual Reality with Wellness

Why did you choose to study computer science at the University of Minnesota specifically?

When first looking at universities, I knew that I really wanted to get into academia and research. I noticed that the University of Minnesota was one of the top research universities in the country, so I thought it was a great fit for me! (Minus the cold!)

How did you become interested in computer science? How did you become interested specifically in virtual reality and visualization?

My interest in computer science stemmed from my childhood obsession with watching modded Minecraft videos and lets-plays on YouTube. One such mod they showcased was “ComputerCraft”, which allowed the player to control little robots called ‘turtles’ and make them move and interact with objects in the game-world. To do so, you needed to program them using a language called Lua. The endless possibilities you could do with the turtles and built-in computers (such as emulating Pokémon games!) really showed me the potential of programming, and how creative you can be with it with just a few lines of code.

Like many others, my interest in virtual reality (VR) came partly from some popular media that showcases the upper limits of the technology, such as the anime Sword Art Online and the movie Ready Player One. The inner-child in me really wants to see if the realities portrayed in these shows can be realized in the near future, and I really wanted to be part of the development process to get there. More generally, I love VR’s greater chance for escapism and better immersion compared to more mainstream display techniques, though I do think its comfort and convenience needs to be improved before being widely adopted (but I digress).

I personally don’t do too much on the data visualization side of things at the moment, but I find it’s super helpful for getting a more intuitive feel of data and showing its overall trends. With big data becoming more prevalent in the industry at the moment, the need to visualize said data to better understand it has never been higher.

Tell us more about your research in the IV Laboratory with professor Dan Keefe.

The Interactive Visualization (IV) Lab mainly focuses on visualizing and interacting with data, but I operate under an entirely different wheelhouse. In the lab, I’ve worked on a couple projects, both mainly focusing on mindfulness and inner-reflection in virtual reality.

The first project involved simulating sunlight within a park environment in VR. The user would wear heat modules on their shoulders and chest, and based on the position of the sun in the park environment relative to you, the modules would heat up with a certain intensity. It really makes you feel like you're experiencing the heat of the sun within the environment! We did this to see if added external stimuli like heat would increase immersion within a VR environment, as well as if the heat could help treat mental illnesses, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The second project is a little more centered towards mental health and healing, but still is related to the external stimuli track. The user sits down in front of a mirror inside a VR environment that reflects their avatar. They have a heart-rate monitor strapped to them. They then are guided through a typical mindfulness/meditation session, where they’re asked to focus on specific parts of their body. When a body-part is mentioned, the beating of their heart (read by the HR monitor) corresponds to the rate at which that specific part of their body (avatar) pulses, which can be seen through the mirror in the VR environment. We generally want to see if mental health interventions/treatments in VR, due to the medium’s freedom to manipulate the environment and user stimuli, is better than traditional, “in real life” approaches. 

If anyone out there is interested in computer graphics, data visualization, or just making cool, graphical things, I’d totally recommend checking out the IV Lab! 

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

My general advice for those first getting into computer science is to try and cast a wide net. The computer science field is vast, so there are many areas that you’ll like, and some you won’t click with as much. It’s important to find those likes and dislikes, as they’ll help steer your academic course choices, as well as those in the industry. To do this, I’d recommend joining as many unique extracurriculars as you can (as courses tend to be fairly introductory in your first year). I’ll be the first to say; this major isn’t for everyone, but if you put in the hours and practice, it’s definitely a fulfilling one!

Some other general tips is to apply for internships early; at the least before junior year. Even if you don’t have the required skill sets companies are looking for, at the very least, it will help you get used to the interviewing process, as well as put your name out there to recruiters. And hey, sometimes you do get lucky and land an internship or two! If (like me) lady luck isn’t in your favor, then no sweat! There are plenty of opportunities for experiences at the university, such as research.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduating last December (2021), I continued my studies in the integrated program and shifted to my computer science master’s degree in order to further my research within the IV Lab. This decision had the unintended side-effect of affording me more time to apply for internships, which led me to my position at Sandia National Laboratories over the summer! After I receive my Master’s (which should be in December 2022), I plan on going into the industry to either continue my summer research with Sandia National Laboratories or joining an entirely different company.

In the long term, I would love to live and work in Japan. I’m infatuated with their cuisine and culture! That’s several years away, so who knows what’ll happen before then!