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Dr. Ryan McMahan, Virtual Reality Researcher and CS Professor Wins NSF Career Grant

A prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation will help a UT Dallas scientist explore new ways that virtual reality can help companies improve their training programs and, ultimately, save lives.

“My approach is new, which is why I think I received the CAREER award,” Dr. Ryan McMahan said. “My argument is that virtual reality will never be as realistic as the real world. But there are things we can do in VR that you can’t do in the real world things that can improve the training process.”

Virtual reality provides computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional environment in which a person interacts in a seemingly real or physical way, typically by using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

Over the next five years, McMahan will be investigating various techniques that utilize virtual reality to enhance training.

Dr. Ryan McMahan (right)in his lab with Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google
Dr. Ryan McMahan (right)in his lab with Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google

For example, he is researching one approach that renders unimportant or irrelevant information at a lower fidelity while rendering important training information in a high-fidelity manner. This approach effectively directs the trainee’s attention to the key virtual objects relevant to the current training step.

Another training method being investigated by McMahan uses a cause-and-effect technique called time warping. Using this method, when a person makes a mistake, the system will fast-forward the simulation to show the consequence of that mistake.

“If the training scenario focuses on the preparation of an operating room, for instance, you might touch a sterile tool with a non-sterile hand, which means you’ve contaminated the entire surgery. If we fast-forward the simulation, you’ll see the patient being brought in, you’ll see the surgery begin, and then you’ll see how that contamination spreads to the patient. Then we’ll rewind back just before your mistake and let you fix your mistake. We’re really highlighting the cause and effect of the different things you should be focusing on,” McMahan said.

Variations of the research also will involve purposely introducing errors to test the breadth of the trainee’s knowledge, requiring the trainee to recall necessary objects before they appear within the virtual environment, and only accepting correct physical movements to execute training tasks, despite real-world physics allowing a greater set of motions. The VR training is intended to improve both cognitive and psychomotor skills.

McMahan will be centering his training research on two workplace domains: robot-assisted operating room teams and pre-shift inspections of off-highway trucks. Through another research grant, he has been collaborating with Intuitive Surgical, the corporation that produces the da Vinci robot, to develop training solutions for robot-assisted operating room teams. He also has a collaboration with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) focused on the pre-shift inspections of off-highway trucks.McMahan Quote

“Truck operators are supposed to inspect their vehicles, but it’s a task that often gets overlooked as you are training new workers. We’re focusing on creating training methods that actually train the workers on what to inspect and how to properly complete those inspections,” McMahan said. “We focused on two domains so that we could demonstrate that our techniques can be applied to virtually any workplace situation.”

McMahan said his hope is that workers ultimately will learn more from the virtual reality training than from real world exercises, and that the VR training will be more time efficient.

“If you can cut down on the time required to train people and, at the same time improve the efficiency or the effectiveness of those trainings, then companies can save time and money, while reducing injuries and deaths,” McMahan said. “We think we can positively impact a lot of industries in one fell swoop.”

McMahan is the twelfth CAREER Award holder in the Department of Computer Science. Other current and past recipients include Dr. Alvaro CárdenasDr. Xiaohu GuoDr. Kevin HamlenDr. Jason JueDr. Murat KantarciogluDr. Zhiqiang LinDr. Yang Liu, Dr. Andrian Marcus, Dr. Ravi PrakashDr. Balakrishnan Prabhakaran and Dr. Edwin Sha.

Source | UT Dallas News Center


The UT Dallas Computer Science program is one of the largest Computer Science departments in the United States with over 1,600 bachelor’s-degree students, more than 1,100 master’s students, 160 PhD students, and 80 faculty members, as of Fall 2015. With The University of Texas at Dallas’ unique history of starting as a graduate institution first, the CS Department is built on a legacy of valuing innovative research and providing advanced training for software engineers and computer scientists.

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