Mastering the world, virtually

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AxioVR designs customised virtual reality paradigms to help clients prepare for, and understand, real-life situations.

Virtual reality (VR) technology has given us the ability to design and simulate environments in two or three dimensions (2D or 3D) that are interactive and can be explored in real time. VR headsets allow us to be completely isolated from outside stimuli and become immersed in a virtual world. It can also place us in situations we would otherwise be fearful of in real life – which is where AxioVR comes in.

“We found that VR is the perfect platform to stimulate patients and subjects to elicit fear or a response from them,” says Gideon Burger, co-founder of AxioVR about how they create safe virtual environments wherein subjects are exposed to their fears, such as heights or even public speaking. AxioVR is a spin-off of Axiology Labs, a company started by Burger that provides and services psychophysiological recording equipment for scientists, teachers and researchers across the African continent.

When Burger expanded the company’s offering to include VR hardware, he attempted to design virtual environments, but quickly realised design was not his forte.Burger approached Natalie Roos, a fine arts major who had designed spaces for the Hyatt and Marriot hotels, among others, to co-found AxioVR together with Dr Stefan du Plessis.

Du Plessis, a clinical neuroimaging researcher at Stellenbosch University jumped on board as co-founder and research director. Du Plessis uses VR as an assessment tool for his research in stress sensitivity and abnormal neurodevelopment seen in schizophrenia.

“We aim to create situations where the psychological effect is the same as the real deal, without putting the subjects at risk of any physical harm."
Natalie Roos, creative director and co-founder of AxioVR.

For an individual that grappled with a fear of public speaking, for example, AxioVR created a virtual auditorium and placed the participant at a podium where they were to deliver a speech that they were not prepared to give.

“We started heightening his senses with the opening of a curtain and 600 people staring back at him in VR. As he started his speech, we increased the intensity by either having a cellphone ringing, or the crowd mumbling to make the subject increasingly nervous,” explains Roos.

Throughout the entire ordeal, the AxioVR team tracks, monitors and records the electrical signals from the user’s heart and electrical activity in the brain with biofeedback equipment, creating publishable data to help in curbing the particular phobia.

“We have done a fear of heights paradigm, where we created a giant warehouse and had the subjects stand on a platform that starts rising as we monitor signals such as heart rate. We have had people crawling on the floor, that is how lifelike it is,” says Roos.

The sky isn’t the limit

It is not just phobias that AxioVR assists with. The team also designs VR software applications according to clients’ specifications. For example, training the team of a mining or construction company on maintenance procedures or visualising a large construction project to get the almost real view of it. VR systems can be installed onsite with the provision of training services.

“I don’t just get a design brief, create a world and then check back in after three months. We work closely together with the clients,” says Roos. “Everything usually starts off with a storyboard, like a blank canvas. We check in with the client to go over whether they like the idea or not, incorporating their suggestions.”

According to Burger, the team bootstrapped their way right up to when the company started receiving orders. “We received some support from researchers — we build a specific world based on what the researchers need.”

AxioVR has developed for the Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Nelson Mandela universities.

“Where we are currently really involved is at Nelson Mandela University’s new medical school. They have just ordered their first VR headset,” says Burger.

One research project with Stellenbosch University that the team is currently busy with, is creating a drug addiction paradigm. Upon wearing the VR headset, subjects find themselves in a house where crack cocaine is bought and sold, complete with drug-taking paraphernalia, alcohol and drug dealers and users loitering about.

The experiment is an attempt to better study addiction by analysing the responses of addicts when immersed in triggering spaces. “There are a lot of drug addiction studies and research, but the context is not always suited to that of South Africa’s,” explains Roos, who is charged with designing the space to make it as realistic as possible – specifically within the SA context.

AxioVR has also been approached for non-research projects, such as working on chewing gum brand Stimorol’s activation of new peppermint and mango flavours.

“We ended up creating a rollercoaster ride that starts in the city and drops the subjects in a cave filled with exploding mangoes. We took them up buildings and into the sky where we had peppermint flavours blowing at them.”

The brand activation ended up being a 4D experience with the inclusion of scents, vibrating chairs that gave a feeling of movement, actual bubbles that subjects could touch and the release of moisture when they hit the water.

The chewing would become even more intense as all these things happened, recount Roos and Burger. Though the team managed to secure another contract with the brand based off this experience, the Covid-19 pandemic has put activations on the backburner.

Creating new learning experiences

Apart from a funding round that is coming up shortly, AxioVR also received some project funding from the Technology Innovation Agency, according to Burger. “That has all been focused on the specific modular platform that we as a company see as having potential to enable us to roll out globally.”

Dubbed the Axio Academy, it is the company’s VR approach to medical teaching that the team wants to take global. “We are really invested in Axio Academy,” says Roos.

“The first module is on the central nervous system. We are taking a boring textbook and creating images where users can see the central nervous system in 3D.”

Students will be able to interact with organs, such as the brain. They will be able to virtually touch and turn it, as well as work through slides of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans –a type of scan that uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed internal images of the body. The module will also include quizzes that enable students to track their learning progress.

However, here, the pandemic has also presented the team with a business lesson: not everybody in South Africa can afford a VR headset. The team realised that although a university might have a VR headset for their labs, during lockdown universities had to make plans to acquire and distribute laptops to students that normally rely on campus computers.

“So, we are working towards turning the Axio Academy into a platform that could work on 2D flatscreens or smartphones, so that we do not disadvantage people without VR headsets,” explains Burger.

He says students will be able to rely on their smartphones to complete the curriculum and get the full VR immersive learning when on campus.

Read more
This article originally appeared in the 5 November edition of finweek. You can buy and download the magazine here.

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