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The HIT lab: “I want to break the glass”

April 11th, 2004 · No Comments

I enjoyed reading this Seattle Times article on the University of Washington Human Interface Technology (HIT) Lab in today’s paper: virtual reality meets medicine. I think this appeals to the geek in me and also the woman who didn’t become a doctor but still likes to read about it…

Plenty of interfacing is going on inside this therapy room at Harborview Medical Center’s Burn Unit.

Lonnie, a wiry 39-year-old framer, sits waist-deep in a metallic tub of water, naked other than a white towel over his lap and a virtual reality headset covering his eyes and ears. Images flow from a laptop down through two cables and into his eyes and mind. A nurse scrubs his scalded left arm under water while a second nurse holds the base of the joystick he manipulates with his right hand.

Inside the goggles, Lonnie interfaces with a frigid world, soaring through an icy cavern with a waterfall sliding down a slope and a river snaking along its floor. He flings snowballs at penguins and snowmen as he swoops and swerves. Each hit sets off a rumbling explosion and a plume of green smoke while some errant shots splash into the riverbed.

Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist and researcher with the University of Washington’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory — the HIT Lab — stands in a corner watching every movement. A monitor shows him exactly what Lonnie sees.

Cleaning burn wounds is necessary to stave off infection, but it is among the most painful procedures a patient must endure. Lonnie, who suffered third-degree burns when an old camping stove exploded, says it feels like getting jabbed with hot needles. But pain requires attention, and the idea behind this experiment — this interface — is to distract Lonnie’s attention by immersing him in another place.

It works well for about 15 minutes. But suddenly, Lonnie is ripping it off. Reality has taken over. Hoffman leaves so Lonnie can grit and curse his way through the rest of the procedure in privacy.

The long-running experiment, done in conjunction with Harborview psychologist David Patterson, represents one of the more standard projects that come out of the eclectic, sometimes eccentric, and always interdisciplinary HIT Lab. What we call virtual reality, the lab calls immersive or augmented reality.


The projects embody the spirit of the lab’s director and founder, Tom Furness, a pioneer of virtual reality. His engineering bio describes his life work as “the concept of virtual interface technologies that prove a circumambience of three-dimensional spatial information to the human using the visual, auditory and tactile sensory modalities.”

Furness translates in English: “I want to break the glass. Those last few inches, between the computer screen and your brain, is the fundamental problem I’ve been trying to address my whole career.”

And as a biochemist by background, I loved the idea of making molecules come alive…

On a speakerphone is a scientist from the Scripps Research Foundation. His lab is producing chalky Jacks-sized molecule models that people can touch and turn in their hands. These models can essentially come alive by adding interface technologies, and Weghorst’s team hopes to make that happen. Bill Anderson, a master’s student from New Mexico, for instance, has come up with a stylus-like tool, about the size of a penlight, that can be used to touch the models Scripps is building and detect various charges where amino acids bond.

I was going to try to make this post short – ha! – but I’ll leave the rest – such as the attempted transurethral resection – at the link…

Tags: geek