Memesis - Human Subject Study

  1. Title of Proposal and date of submission:
    "Virtual Reality Environment Experiment 1: A Comparison of Physiological Measures of Fear Arousal" 
    Submitted September 26, 2003
    Approved September 29, 2003
  2. Name and address of the primary investigator:
    Alison McMahan
  3. Department of origin of the proposal:
    Media Studies Development Project

  4. Name of student research assistant:
    Rebecca Tortell

  5. Design Overview (Answer Yes or No):

    1. Is your research free of deception?

    2. Are the risks to participants less than minimal (see 8C)? 
      The risks to participants in this study these risks are similar to those evoked when watching a mainstream Hollywood film, as the clips will be taken from Hollywood films, in other words, the risk is similar to that ordinarily encountered in daily life. The hypoallergenic gel used for attaining a good electrical connection between the electrodes and the skin may cause a rash in people with sensitive skin. There is an extremely small possibility of getting a small electric buzz from the electrodes; however this risk is greater for the researchers, who apply and remove the electrodes, than the subjects. The equipment is designed to shut itself off if there is a power surge or other electrical anomaly, and has already been used by many researchers at Vassar without problems.

    3. Will the subjects be 18 years of age or older? 
      Subjects will be 18+.

    4. Will you be obtaining genuine informed consent (see 11C)?

    5. Are participants' responses anonymous?

  6. Research proposal summary (100 words or less)
    Memesis is a prototype virtual reality environment (VE) with a transparent interface which reads subconscious input from the user as well as user choices. The goal is to develop a sense of presence in the VR based on a greater sense of immersion brought about by the VE's ability to collect data from the user and respond accordingly for entertainment and learning. This study will examine the efficiency of two measures (skin conductance response, electrocardiogram) for determining the arousal reactions within each individual confronted with video clips that will approximate the eventual 3D graphic VR content that Memesis will contain.

  7. Theoretical justification for the research:

    This project is inspired in the first place by projects that apply VR in the treatment of phobias (Hodges 1995, MŸhlberger 2001, North 1996, etc). Many studies have measured normal and pathological reactions to emotional stimuli such as anxiety inducing situations (Litt 1999, Pury 1997, Tillfors et al 2001), provocative visual stimuli such as photographs (Paradiso et al 1999, Sheline et al. 2001, Thomas et al, 2001), computer games (MacDowell and Mandler 1989), and memories of previous emotionally-laden experiences (Dougherty et al 1999, Rosenberg et al. 2001). Most of these studies aimed to show a correlation between heightened emotional arousal and physiological effect generally, as reflected in MRIs or SCRs, and the methods used to evoke an arousal response were of like kind. Some studies have indicated a consistent concordance between response systems (Calvo, Miguel-Toabal, 1998, Alvarado 1997). The purpose of the current study is to ascertain if SCR or EKG measurements can be used effectively to determine, not whether certain stimuli evoke an arousal response at all, but which of various stimuli evokes the highest response in any given (normal) individual. Eventually the form of measurement that works best will be used as part of a biofeedback interface in a VR environment so that the physiological responses of the user can serve as navigational commands in the virtual environment.

    Lombard's work on presence (the artificial sense that a user has in a virtual environment that the environment is unmediated) lists six dimensions of presence as defined in a diverse set of literatures. His summary indicated that an increased sense of presence can result from a combination of all or some of the following factors: social interaction, realism in the environment (graphics, sound, etc), from the effect of teleportation or telepresence, from the degree of immersiveness generated by the interface, from the user's ability to accomplish significant actions within the environment, and from the social impact of what occurs in the environment (Lombard 2000). I have clarified and slightly revised these six dimensions of presence for their use in VR and computer game design (McMahan, 2003). Clearly, some of these elements work against others; for example, the learning curve required to act effectively can conflict with the sense of immersiveness (Ryan 1999). The biofeedback interface in Memesis is designed to minimize this lack of complementarity by replacing the need for the user to learn a complex interface and command system with an interface that responds to the user's physiological state. This study is the first step in the process of the interface design.

  8. Detailed Research Proposal.

    1. Who will be the participants and how will they be recruited? How many participants do you expect to use?

      This would require approximately 20 adult (age 18+) participants with no gender specificity. Participants would be recruited from Vassar College through advertisement and personal contact. A financial incentive may be invoked if an insufficient number volunteer.

    2. Describe the psychological and/or physiological stimuli, manipulations, or interventions and the means used to administer them. Indicate the steps that will be taken to ensure the proper operation of the equipment used to administer stimuli and interventions. Give particular attention to prevention of accidental harm or injury to the subjects.

      All stimuli will be presented in the form of video clips shown on a television monitor. Before the stimulus material is presented, each participant will fill out a questionnaire on their aversions and phobias. Participants can read over the questionnaire before they begin and opt out of the study before filling out the questionnaire if they choose to do so. Participants are given the option to abstain from any item they do not wish to answer. Participants will be shown a series of clips, mostly from recent Hollywood films made with a similar level of production value. Films with an NC-17 rating will be excluded. Clips will contain realistic depictions of sequences that might trigger a fear reaction (sequences with a character teetering on the edge of a cliff) or anxiety reaction (sequence depicting a plane crash, such as the crash sequence in Castaway.) As a control participants will be shown two "calm" sequences depicting a low key narrative event such as a conversation or a tranquil activity. After each clip participants will have a short pause before the next clip is shown to answer questions about their reaction to the clip. At the end of the study participants will be shown a slightly longer clip of from a calm and cheerful sequence, such as a comedy routine or a musical number, to help the participant return to pre-stimulus emotional levels. Should participants become visibly distressed at any time the PI will encourage them to discontinue participation in the study. Total length of time for each subject involved in experiment: 75 to 90 minutes.

    3. Describe the level of risk to which the participants will be exposed byparticipating in this study. Why are the risks necessary? Why is the research important enough to justify the risks?

      The goal of this study is to provide basic data to enable an interface design that will promote a higher degree of presence in virtual reality environments. A more transparent interface is the goal of all virtual reality designers. Virtual reality environments are used for entertainment and most importantly for training, research, and treatment. Any improvement in design would help in the accomplishment of all of those goals.

      Some of the stimulus material, by design, will tend to provoke affective reactions. For example, participants will view events such as plane crashes that could trigger feelings of anxiety. However, these risks are similar to those evoked when watching a mainstream Hollywood film, as the clips will be taken from Hollywood films. Nevertheless, participants are given the option to skip stimulus material that may make them uncomfortable, or stop their participation with no penalty. The hypoallergenic gel used for attaining a good electrical connection between the electrodes and the skin may cause a rash. There is a remote possibility of slight electrical shock from a power surge. However the equipment is designed to switch itself off should such a surge occur. This equipment has been used by researchers in the Vassar Psychology department for many experiments without any problems.Subjects are advised to consider this before choosing to participate. Subjects will also be warned that some of the clips they will view could elicit a phobic reaction. They will be advised not to participate if they have strong phobias. In case a subject does have a strong reaction, we will have a separate quiet area set up with comfortable seating and some snack food where the PI can spend time with any subject who is overwhelmed by the experience of watching the clips.

    4. Is there any deception of the participants who will be involved?

      There is no deception involved in any part of this study.

    5. Describe the expected behavior of the participants and the behavior of the investigator during the research. This must include a written statement of what is to be read or said to the participant concerning the research.

      During the experiment, as participants view the stimulating clips and the non-stimulating control clips, their skin conductance is recorded from an electrode placed on the palms or fingertips, heart rate is recorded from an electrode on the wrist. Electrodes are connected to a BioPac physiological data amplifier, analog-to-digital converter, and ultimately to a computer running AcqKnowledge software that will record the signal. After viewing each clip, subjects will be asked several questions. They will rate their anxiety or fear reaction to each clip on a scale of 1 to 5. They will also be asked if they had already seen the film. After all the stimulus material has been presented, participants may be asked if they felt certain clips aroused a stronger response than others. They will also be encouraged to discuss their overall experience with the PI as a way of helping them return to normal emotional state before their participation is concluded.

      Participants will be read the following statement before informed consent is obtained. Prior to its reading, they will have seen the room where they will be tested.

      "Thanks for coming to the lab to hear about this study. This is what will happen if you decide to participate.
      "I am interested in measuring the different fear and anxiety reactions caused by visual/audio media within individuals.

      The purpose of the study is to provide data to aid in the design of a biofeedback interface for a virtual reality environment. "If you choose to participate, I will have you first answer some questions about what sorts of things you are afraid of. These questions may require you to provide us with sensitive information about yourself; if you prefer not to answer any question, you may skip any question for any reason or withdraw your participation at any time. As part of the study, you will be asked to watch a series of clips, excerpts from Hollywood films. Each clip is only a few minutes long; there is a total of forty five minutes worth of clips, with breaks in between each clip.

      "Before showing you the clips I will hook up small electrodes to your palm and to your wrist on each hand, and one on your ankle The electrode on your palm measures your galvanic skin response, that is, minute changes in sweat. Unlike other sweat glands in your body, in certain places sweat is determined by autonomic arousal and not temperature. This sort of equipment has been used with other measurements for polygraph tests to help determine whether someone is telling the truth, although that is not its function here. The electrode on your wrist measures your heart rate, and the one on your ankle is a ground. The electrodes are applied with gel. It is possible that a person might develop a mild rash from the gel, but it is designed to be hypoallergenic. If you have extremely sensitive skin, you might want to consider your participation carefully, but it is unlikely that you will have a reaction to the gel. The other risk that participants are sometimes concerned about is being connected to electrical equipment. This same equipment is regularly used in research and hospitals. We use a device that immediately switches off the power if there is any current leakage from the equipment. This protects you while you are connected to the electrodes. This equipment has been used here at Vassar for many experiments without any problems.

      After watching each clip, you will be asked if you found it frightening, anxiety inducing, etc. on a scale of 1 to 5, in which 5 means you found it very scary and 1 means not at all scary.

      "You may have as much time as you need to answer the questions. You may take a break at any time. The entire procedure should take 75-90 minutes. All of the data collected here will be identified with a number, so your name will never be associated with your responses and physiological recordings. This enhances confidentiality, as only myself and my project coworkers will have have access to these data.
      "Just as in all studies with human participants, anyone has the right to stop at any point. If you decide you'd like to stop, just let me know. If you have any questions along the way, you can feel free to ask me. Do you have any questions about what will happen if you decide to be a participant?"  (Answer questions). 

      Once all questions are answered to the subject's satisfaction, and the subject is willing to go ahead, the investigator will obtain informed consent and say:

      Here are two copies of the consent form. One is for you to keep. Go ahead and read it, and ask me any questions you might have. If you choose to participate, please sign the form. You are under no obligation to participate or to sign the form.

    6. Describe how the participants are to be debriefed and the mechanism for alleviation of stress or psychological harm that may derive from participation in this study. Provide a written statement of what will be said to, read to, or ready by the subjects during the debriefing.

      At the end of the study participants will be shown a calm and cheerful movie clip. They will also be encouraged to discuss their emotional experience with the PI. This should help them return to a calm state. If subjects are interested, the motivation of the study may be explained in a larger context.

    7. State what the information/data from this research are to be used for. Who will have access to the data? What will be done with the data?

      The data are being collected for the purposes of furthering the design of a virtual reality project by Alison McMahan, Ph.D., a project funded by a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship grant. The following individuals will have access to these data: Rebecca Tortell (student), Dr. Ken Livingston (consultant), and the team of consultants and students that will be designing and programming the final VR environment.

    8. Who is conducting the study.

      The study will be performed by Alison McMahan, although Advisors Professor Ken Livingston and Professor Randy Cornelius have provided guidance for the purpose of learning the necessary techniques in efficient physiological data collection. She will be assisted by student Rebecca Tortell.

  9. Describe how the privacy and anonymity of participants are to be protected.

    Participant privacy and confidentiality are protected through the assignment of numbers. When data are collected, they will be associated with assigned participant numbers only. Additionally, only a small number of people will have access to these data.

  10. Questions and Questionnaires

    1. This questionnaire will be administered prior to the viewing of clips. Questions are still not exactly in their final form, as I plan to consult with an expert in statistical design before I put them into their final form. The following gives an indication of what we need to know for the purposes of the study: 

      Code # Sex M F Date of birth (you must be 18 to participate)

      Please rank the following media according to preference:

      Films, TV, Computer/video games

      How many hours a week do you spend on the following:

      Watching movies

      Watching TV

      Playing computer/video games

      Would you describe yourself as a horror film fan?

      Would you describe yourself as a myster/thriller film fan?

      To your knowledge do you suffer from any phobias? (Be advised that if you have been clinically diagnosed with a phobia it might be risky for you to participate in this study).

    2. Participants will be asked to answer the following questions after each clip: 

      Have you seen this movie before?

      On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most intense, and 1 not being intense at all, how would you rate the degree of your emotional reaction to this clip?

      Describe the emotions this clip elicited from you in words.


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