The History of the Virtual Classroom
The original Virtual Classroom project began in 1998 as part of a larger USC Clinical VR research program aimed at developing VR technology applications to improve our capacity to understand, measure, and treat the cognitive/functional impairments commonly found in clinical populations with Central Nervous System (CNS) dysfunction. The Virtual Classroom was initially designed as a Head Mounted Display (HMD) VR system for the assessment of attention processes in children. Efforts to target this cognitive process were supported by the widespread occurrence and relative significance of attention impairments seen in a variety of clinical conditions that affect children. Notable examples of childhood clinical conditions where attention difficulties are seen include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD), Traumatic Brain Injury, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
With these clinical conditions, VR technology provides specific assets for assessing attention that are not available using existing methods. For example, HMDs that serve to occlude the distractions of the outside world are well suited for these types of cognitive assessment applications. Within a HMD, researchers and clinicians can provide a controlled stimulus environment where attention (and other cognitive) challenges can be presented along with the precise delivery and control of “distracting” auditory and visual stimuli within the virtual environment. This level of experimental control allows for the development of attention assessment/rehabilitation tasks that are more similar to what is found in the real world and when delivered in the context of an ecologically relevant functional virtual environment, could improve on the validity of measurement and treatment in this area.
The first project with the Virtual Classroom focused on attention assessment in children with ADHD. The heterogeneous features of ADHD, a behavioral disorder marked by inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity, have made consensus regarding its diagnosis difficult. Furthermore, traditional methods for assessing ADHD in children have been questioned regarding issues of reliability and validity. Due to the complexity of the disorder and the limitations of traditional assessment techniques, diagnostic information is required from multiple types of ADHD measures and a variety of sources in order for the diagnosis to be given (American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Greenhill, 1998). Thus, in the area of ADHD assessment where traditional diagnostic techniques have been plagued by subjectivities and inconsistencies, it was believed that an objective and reliable VR strategy might add value over existing approaches and methods.
Parallel development of the VR Classroom by Cognitive Leap has produced a research version that allows researchers and clinicians to create and deliver novel, customized testing/training content with the integration of EPrime software from Psychology Software Tools. The EPrime version of the system is currently being tested at Northeastern University investigating the impact of exercise on cognitive performance in children and at the University of California-San Francisco testing cognitive function in adults with multiple sclerosis.
The future of this work is bright! The system is being expanded to deliver a wide variety of traditional and innovative tests and training experiences within the Virtual Classroom and modifications are in the design phase for creating adult classrooms and other VR environments of relevance.