Adaptive Virtual Environments for a Prolonged Exposure Therapy of Attention Deficits on Autism Spectrum – Dr. Chao Mei

The goal of this research is to develop and evaluate an adaptive virtual reality (VR) system that will enable an innovative therapy for children with attention deficit on the autism spectrum. The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United State has grown significantly in recent years, and while there have been some successful efforts to address this issue by exploiting VR-based therapies, most of them merely use VR as an alternative way to simulate existing approaches. An important feature of VR technology – the ability to generate “impossible experiences” (i.e., experiences that cannot be created in the real world, such as a chair disappearing upon the user’s gaze) – seems to be missing in these systems, because this feature was not available when most traditional ASD therapies were developed. The envisaged system will employ specifically designed “impossible experiences” to deliver an individualized therapy that addresses the attention deficits of children with ASD. The research will improve the learning ability for children with ASD and provide novel design guidelines for future VR systems used in ASD therapy.

The PI will study research questions and develop the system incrementally. The overall logic of the system is: 1) Expose the user to a virtual environment to finish a task (e.g., listen to a virtual teacher talking); 2) Detect the user’s attention with eye-tracking data and physiological signals, then remove all the detected distractions (e.g., a red mug) from the virtual environment; 3) Gradually restore all distractions into the virtual environment, expose the user to one more distraction object at a time and reinforce the correct attention. To implement this strategy, the PI will first explore attention capture in VR and strategies for reinforcement in VR through short user studies. Then, the effectiveness of the entire system will be evaluated through a six-month long, multiple-baseline design across participants study. All the studies will be conducted with K-12 students with medium to high levels of ASD.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.