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UFS staffer designs tool to deal with cybersickness

A senior official in the School of Nursing Simulation Laboratory at the University of the Free State (UFS) has designed a popular virtual reality gaming tool seeking to cure or minimise cybersickness in nursing students.

Bennie Botha, who is acting head of Information, Communication, and Simulation Technology at the institution said he has developed a virtual environment in which nursing students use immersive VR to perform a simulation scenario.

The project is part of his master’s degree in Computer Science and Informatics under the supervision of Dr. Lizette de Wet and co-supervisor, Prof Yvonne Botma.

The project started in November 2017 when Botha first conceptualised the idea and took it to De Wet.

He then started it as a master’s project in 2018 and completed it at the end of 2019. Botha obtained his master’s degree with distinction during the UFS virtual graduation in October.

Botha said he found that some people experience cybersickness (almost like motion sickness), which is a significant issue and difficult to address.

He will now try to address this with a VR gaming tool – the KAT Walk mini.

According to Botha, this technology which has never been attempted for health-care education, is mostly used in military and pilot training and is very popular as a gaming platform for hard core VR gamers.

“To test and provide a possible solution, I am going to incorporate the KAT Walk mini (Omni-directional treadmill – almost like the Ready Player One concept) into which students are strapped, and they can physically walk and turn around without the need for large open spaces,” explained Botha.

“With this, I will try to determine whether it decreases or even eliminates cybersickness due to sensory mismatch while using immersive VR. I wanted to provide possible evidence of what causes cybersickness and want to enable VR as an educational tool, not just for gaming. I think immersive VR has a bright future if the kinks (of which the biggest is cybersickness) can be minimised,” he added.

Botha successfully applied for funding earlier this year and received R150 000 from the UFS.

“I was surprised when I got the approval letter. I thought that due to the economic status it would not go through, but I was really glad when I got the approval as this is my dream and I love working with VR for health care. The grant has made my dream come true, especially considering that this sounds more like something from science fiction,” he noted.

Botha said immersive VR gives students more time and a more accessible platform where they can practice their skills, as it is easy to use and set up compared to other modalities of simulation.

But the biggest task is to develop a usable virtual environment that gives students more time to practice and increase their theory and practical integration, which is key to providing highly skilled health-care professionals.

“By seeking and possibly implementing the new research, I aim to provide students with an equal opportunity to participate in immersive VR simulation, as it currently excludes people who are prone to high levels of cybersickness. This means that they cannot benefit from the same opportunities as other students do,” pointed out Botha.

He also noted he believes it can help all nursing students in the country and the rest of Africa, as it is much more cost-effective than high-technology manikins because is easier to set up and access, with much less manual input required to make it work (apart from the initial development).

By: Neo Ntsele