School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences

Virtual Reality Isn’t Just for Science Fiction Any More

The “holodeck” with only the “plank” in place.

Any Star Trek: The Next Generation fan can describe the holodeck before a virtual real- ity sequence begins: a bare room with black walls divided into squares. The photo here isn’t of that famous holodeck though; it is the laboratory of ENS professor Harsimran ‘Sim’ Baweja. He is using this laboratory to study the interplay between cognitive and motor function in aging and people with Parkinson’s disease. He has painstakingly assembled all of his lab equipment over many years and many of the components he uses are adapted from off-the-shelf gaming equipment.

Dr. Harsimran Baweja
Dr. Harsimran Baweja

Dr. Baweja has created this laboratory space so that he can safely test the impact of stress on his research subjects, without actually putting them in danger.  For example, he uses a fully robotic motion-actuated driving simulator, complete with sound and motion, to test a subject’s ability to drive in both a familiar environment and a strange city, but without the need to fly his subjects anywhere.  People with mild cognitive impairment frequently are able to function well in a familiar environment but much worse in a strange one. With the simulator, Dr. Baweja is able to completely control the testing environment and record both physical movement and neurophysiological activity. He uses wireless sensors to record movement and muscular activity as well as wireless EEG and EKG equipment to record brain activity and anxiety (from heart rate). Because they are wireless, subjects are less aware of them and less restricted.

holodeck use
The holodeck with the floor lowered and the plank raised. The figure on the left shows the person walking with sensors and virtual reality headset. The right figure is a computer-generated model showing the subject’s movements.

Another testing mechanism he uses is “walking the plank”. Subjects wear a virtual reality headset and sensors. Although still in the lab, they are convinced that they are in a realistic setting of an old gymnasium. First they walk across a plank that is placed on the ground. Then they are “tricked” through virtual reality, into thinking the ground has fallen away and is 20 feet below them. Finally they experience the simulation of the plank rising 20 feet into the air, making the ground 40 feet below them. Obviously, walking across a narrow board believing you are 40 feet from the ground greatly increases the physiological response of the subjects. All the while, however, the subjects are perfectly safe walking on the lab floor.

By studying the performance of subjects with varying levels of neurological deficits such as Parkinson’s, he hopes to develop an early detection system that will allow physicians to diagnose Parkinson’s’ much earlier. He believes that mild cognitive impairment associated with Parkinson’s could affect the control of movement in these patients. With the information he is gathering he also intends to develop mechanistic interventions that will help those with cognitive impairment and Parkinson’s function independently better and longer.

Using the fully immersive virtual reality system, he could design individualized patient centered mechanistic interventions.

student presenting
Undergraduate Selena Mae presenting her poster in Berlin.

Dr. Baweja is also passionate about offering research experience to students; graduates and undergraduates alike.  He has students working in his lab as early as their freshman year.  Several of his research assistants are part of the Doctor in Physical Therapy program, which is what brought Dr. Baweja to work at SDSU. Last year six of his students presented projects at the student research symposium and three (were awarded prizes.  One undergraduate researcher, Selena Mae, was invited to present her research at the 5th International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport in Berlin, Germany. This is a prestigious conference held once every four years where the guidelines for sports-related concussion management are updated. Selena presented her work on balance deficits in Division I athletes following sport concussions.

Dr. Baweja is committed to his lab space being a step ahead of any other similar lab. With the recent leaps in leaps that virtual reality technology is taking, it will be exciting to see what he comes up with next as he helps people “live long and prosper”.


Welcome Matthew Mahar, New Director of ENS

Matthew Mahar
Matthew Mahar

Dr. Matther Mahar is a Professor and Director of the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. He received his B.S.E. in Physical Education at the State University of New York at Cortland, a Ed.D in Measurement and Research in Exercise Science and a M.Ed. in Exercise Science at the University of Houston. Before coming to SDSU, he was the chair of the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University.  His areas of interest include the promotion and measurement of physical activity and fitness, identification of valid and reliable youth fitness testing methods, and analysis of the effects of classroom-based physical activity programs on physical activity and on-task behavior. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the FitnessGram national youth fitness test and developer of the Energizers classroom-based physical activities. He is a co-author of a measurement and evaluation textbook and has served as investigator for a variety of research grants supported by the CDC, The Cooper Institute, and the Active Living Research initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.