It’s the stuff of dreams: Better healthcare at home

Posted on 29. Aug, 2012 by in Academic Departments, Healthcare and Medicine, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Issues, Research, Summer: Annual Report

Virtual reality facility

Photo: Jeff Miller.

Tucked away in a deep corner of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery Building on the UW-Madison campus, a six-sided room (pictured) called the “CAVE” uses coordinated computer projections to create immersive, virtual-reality world in which virtually anything is possible. “Almost anything we dream, we can actually make,” says Moehlman Bascom Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering Patricia Brennan.

For part of her research, Brennan has created a virtual house—complete with creaky doors, faucets that turn on and off, and a stunning exterior view of Niagara Falls—which she and her research group are using to study and improve how patients care for themselves at home.

Housed in Brennan’s Living Environments Laboratory, the CAVE alleviates the researchers’ need to move into a patient’s guest bedroom to study his or her home healthcare behaviors or challenges. Rather, it allows them to simulate any number of scenarios, including how visual cues in the home could encourage people to take better care of themselves—for example, by quitting smoking or exercising.

The researchers also are using their imagination: Collaborating with colleagues that include renowned UW-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, Brennan is studying ways to stimulate changes in the brain that help people more effortlessly choose health-promoting behaviors. In the CAVE, she can measure whether an imagination-stimulating experience has an effect on brain patterns that can help ward off unhealthy desires—like the desire to light up a cigarette. “Then we’ll look at what visual cues we can place in clinical or neighborhood settings that might perform that same kind of stimulation,” Brennan says.

Brennan’s research is just the beginning: Since computer programmers create virtual environments in the CAVE, it offers almost endless possibilities. For example, one student is using the CAVE to study how best to organize supplies in operating rooms, while another researcher is testing a “heads up” display that provides food nutrition information—an advance particularly important to diabetics or people with food allergies.

Someday, they may be a reality, but for now, says Brennan: “In the CAVE, we can experience these things.”

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