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Exploring and Modifying the Sense of Time in Virtual Environments

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VIRTUALTIMES (Exploring and Modifying the Sense of Time in Virtual Environments)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2020-06-30

The overall objective of the research consortium is twofold: scientifically, we want to contribute to a better understanding of the human experience of time, technologically, we want to develop a virtual reality (VR) application that allows to experience virtual lifeworlds with altered time. This overall objective can be further differentiated into the following major objectives:
1 Establish a conceptually sound and empirically well-grounded experimental platform for the systematic and rigorous study of time experience and its neurobiological correlates, both under conditions of mental health and psychopathological disorders (depression, schizophrenia, autism);
2 Develop a VR application called “MetaChron” that allows experiences of virtual lifeworlds where time-critical processes can vary (clocks, human agents, natural and physical phenomena);
3 Provide the experience of time-changed lifeworlds via MetaChron in order to improve their well-being and/or normalise their psychopathological conditions in case of persons with psychiatric disturbances.
Before getting started, organisational issues had to be resolved including the setup of a central project office, grant agreement, consortium agreement and the submission of ethics proposals for the different scientific studies (WP1). After this preparatory work, major efforts have been invested into the development of a first version of “MetaChron”, a virtual reality (VR)-based platform that allows the systematic manipulation of time experience (WP2), and into the scientific basis of the exploration of time experience (WP3).
Right from the start the consortium has been working on the VR platform that we refer to as MetaChron as a tool that stands “above time” insofar as time experience can be manipulated systematically for users of MetaChron. The basic idea is that through the usage of so-called virtual “zeitgebers” it will be possible to change or manipulate the time experience of the user or visitor of the virtual world. Currently, virtual zeitgebers are implemented in all possible domains comprising the social domain (e.g. personal agents moving with different velocities), the natural domain (e.g. different velocities of day-night-cycles, growing plants, flying birds, moving clouds etc.) and the physical domain (e.g. different velocities of physical objects or events like pendulums and clocks). In addition to these zeitgebers, it is also possible to manipulate the content of the virtual worlds presented, for instance, the number of persons waiting with the participant in a waiting room (WP2).
A necessary prerequisite for the scientific work on the sense of time was to develop a general scientific framework and research ontology for VIRTUALTIMES. We are grounding our work on the idea that we are mainly distinguishing between the passage of time, referring to the experience of time passing by, and to the structure of time, referring to the ordered serial arrangement of past, present and future. On the basis of this conceptualization, the consortium has been developing a platform of a variety of different approaches to the subjective and objective measurements of time experience. Subjective measures refer to the individual experience of time by the participant of an experiment, e.g. how fast did time pass by; objective measures refer to objectively measurable judgments made by the participant, e.g. judgment of the absolute duration of certain time periods, physiological and/or neurobiological measures of correlates of time experience (WP3). A core experiment addressing the passage of time has been the “waiting room” in which we let participants wait for 7.5 minutes. A core experiment addressing the structure of time has been the “variable foreperiod task” in which participants have to make predictions about the near future based on previous experiences. Other approaches use “flow” experiences or a “starfield simulation” with which we can obtain judgments of both duration of time and passage of time.
A crucial and very important methodological step was obviously the demonstration that the different experimental approaches developed (WP3) also work in VR. The consortium has reached the stage of a fully functional VR platform and has successfully shown in several independent studies that the time experience effects that can be elicited in VR are fully comparable with effects that can be observed in classical laboratory settings. This has allowed us to bring together these two main branches of science and technology in the first report period of VIRTUALTIMES.
Currently, we are extending our empirical work into two different directions. First, we will integrate physiological and neurobiological measures into the experimental setup. Second, we will also include studies on clinical populations of patients with schizophrenia, depression and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). With one particular approach, an experiment focusing on intentional binding, we have already started to study patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and ASD. Intentional binding refers to the systematic underestimation of the duration between causative action (e.g. button press) and effect (e.g. a tone) if the participant caused the action him/herself (as opposed to a computer causing the effect).
A major obstacle has obviously been the lockdown periods in the different partner countries and the confinements due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After the lockdown periods, members of the consortium had to work on hygiene plans in order to be able to continue the scientific work in their empirical projects.
Taken together, members of the consortium experience the work as being very productive during the first report period. We had three personal conferences among the members of the consortium and we meet regularly for plenary virtual conferences.
We are establishing and updating MetaChron, a VR-based platform for the experience of lifeworlds with changes in timing. There is evidence for an altered time experience in extreme everyday situations indicated either by the well-known feelings of boredom or of time pressure as well as under conditions of psychiatric disturbances. However, there is no systematic exploration of how time experience influences our well-being or how it is connected to or could be normalized in psychopathological conditions. Making use of MetaChron we have started to systematically study time experience under normal and psychopathological conditions. Using time-related experience in diagnostic terms has the potential to enrich the diagnostic process in clinical psychiatry. VR-based therapies have already been successfully introduced in psychiatry. The therapeutic value of a change of the sense of time in patients with psychiatric disorders is entirely unknown. VR-based therapies are furthermore advantageous as they can be individually adapted and personalised, they can develop a preventive function and do not have biological side-effects. Employing VR-based diagnostic or therapeutic procedure into clinical practice also requires ethical considerations that focus on normative questions and on the justification of means potentially allowing normalisation. This is the reason why the consortium has also started to work on ethical guidelines for the use of VR in clinical practice. This can lead to the development of a series of new products for the market in the field of mental health, healing and well-being.
MetaChron user interface (example)
Bioadaptive MetaChron prototype
Virtual waiting room