A University of Central Florida researcher is leading a nearly $5 million U.S. National Science Foundation-funded project to develop the first, large-scale system for extended reality human subjects research.

Called the Virtual Experience Research Accelerator, or VERA, the system will enable researchers to carry out large studies in extended reality (XR) environments, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality and mixed reality, with large and diverse populations. The four-year project will be led by Professor Greg Welch, a computer scientist and engineer, and the AdventHealth Endowed Chair in Healthcare Simulation in UCF’s College of Nursing. Welch also holds secondary appointments in the College of Engineering and Computer Science, and the School of Modeling, Simulation and Training (SMST).

The NSF announced the funding today as part of a $16.1 million investment the agency is making in artificial intelligence (AI) infrastructure through its Computer and Information Science and Engineering  (CISE) Community Research Infrastructure — or CCRI — program.

“VERA could transform the way XR researchers carry out human subjects research,” Welch says. “It will allow researchers to run studies relatively quickly, using a large number of study participants with diverse demographics, to realize faster generation of better-quality results that are more generalizable to the larger population.”

One goal of the VERA project is to provide researchers with a new and powerful tool that could lead to improved XR technologies that are more effective for the user and make XR research more inclusive to underrepresented groups, such as older adults or people with disabilities, who could potentially benefit from the technology, Welch says.

Other institutions also receiving NSF CCRI awards this year are the University of Pennsylvania; the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; UCLA; and Penn State.

The 2023 CCRI projects will provide researchers and students across the nation with access to transformative resources through platforms for carrying out AI research on social robotics and research in immersive virtual environments that could also benefit AI research.

“A critical element to the success of the AI research revolution is ensuring that researchers have access to the data and platforms required to continue to drive innovation and scalability in AI technologies and systems,” says NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “This infrastructure must be accessible to a full breadth and diversity of talent interested in AI [research and development], as that is the driving force behind modern discoveries.”

While VERA is primarily aimed at human subjects research in XR, it will also contribute to the success of AI research by providing researchers with a tool for collecting large data sets of realistic human behavior that is representative of the general population, Welch says.

About VERA

The VERA project will address a critical problem in human subjects research in XR — a vast majority of the studies rely on relatively small convenience samples of college-age participants that are not demographically diverse and take a relatively long time to carry out, Welch says.

“Because laboratory-based studies are relatively slow, they are typically limited to relatively small population samples, and because those samples are not typically representative of the general population, the findings typically are not either,” he says.

VERA will combine the ideas of distributed lab-based studies, online studies, research panels, crowdsourcing and virtual environments into a unified system for carrying out XR-based human subjects research. To create a large, diverse pool of research participants, the team will recruit diverse participants from around the country to serve in a standing participant pool.

The system will be comprised of a study management program, the participant pool, and a virtual metaworld where participants can join studies, and researchers can attend meetings and events as well as interact with 3D visualizations of final study data.

Individuals recruited for the VERA participant pool will include those who already own VR equipment as well as those who will have it provided to them. The system will allow for participants to take part in studies remotely, without having to come to a lab.

The VERA Team

In addition to Welch, the VERA team includes principal investigators Shiri Azenkot, an associate professor with Cornell Tech and a co-founder and Director of XR Access; Jeremy Bailenson, a Thomas More Storke Professor at Stanford University; Gerd Bruder, a research associate professor with UCF’s Institute of Simulation and Training, SMST; Tabitha Peck, an associate professor with Davidson College; and Valerie Jones Taylor, an associate professor with Lehigh University.

Co-investigators are Jonathan Beever, an associate professor in UCF’s College of Arts and Humanities; Nicholas Alvaro Coles, a research scientist with Stanford University and the Director of the Psychological Science Accelerator; Carolina Cruz-Neira, an Agere Chair Professor in UCF’s Department of Computer Science; John Murray, an assistant professor in UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media; and Rui Xie, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Statistics and Data Science.

Several industry and nonprofit organizations are involved, as is the XR Association.

Next Steps

The VERA team will begin developing the system and curating a participant pool during the first year of the work, as well as build a community around the project.

“It’s really a joy to be working on this,” Welch says. “With VERA, both established and advancing researchers will have a new power tool to do more great research, and researchers who do not have a laboratory where they can run XR human subjects research, due to perhaps money or space limitations, will now have a practical and powerful way to run studies. VERA offers a chance to do something for the amazing XR research community, by making high-quality human subjects research accessible to more researchers.”

Researcher Credentials

Welch received his doctorate in computer science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and joined UCF in 2011.

Bruder received his doctorate in computer science from the University of Hamburg in Germany and joined UCF in 2016.

Beever received his doctorate in philosophy from Purdue University and joined UCF in 2015.

Cruz-Neira received her doctorate in computer science/virtual reality from the University of Illinois Chicago and joined UCF in 2020.

Murray received his doctorate in computer science from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and joined UCF in 2018.

Xie received his doctorate in statistics from the University of Georgia and joined UCF in 2019.