Wang Pushes Boundaries of Psychology Research

Before the Beckman Institute acquired a state-of-the-art immersive virtual reality environment known as the Cube, the most high tech Ranxiao Frances Wang got in her psychology research was to use a video camera. These days, Wang is treating the Cube like a test pilot does an experimental aircraft.

Before the Beckman Institute acquired a state-of-the-art immersive virtual reality environment known as the Cube, the most high tech Ranxiao Frances Wang got in her psychology research was to use a video camera. These days, Wang is treating the Cube like a test pilot does an experimental aircraft.

"She's come up with some of the most innovative projects in the Cube," said Hank Kaczmarksi, Director of Beckman's Integrated Systems Laboratory, which operates the rare, six-sided, 3-D facility.

"It's really been exciting working with her. She really pushes the limits of the Cube's capabilities."
- ISL Director Hank Kaczmarksi on psychology researcher Ranxiao Frances Wang

Wang is a Professor of Psychology and member of Beckman's Human Perception and Performance group whose research focuses on various aspects of human spatial cognition and visual perception. The Cube, with its ability to create virtual worlds that can simulate everything from swimming sharks to leaves on a tree, is a perfect facility for Wang's expanding research interests.

"I study three-dimensional space and how people move around and understand that," Wang said. "The Cube is really fantastic equipment for that because it creates the kind of environments where I can test different hypotheses. It creates all kinds of things that are impossible to do in real life."

In the past Wang has tested conventional thinking in psychology with projects and papers based on her experiments in the Cube. One paper that she was lead author on, Spatial updating relies on an egocentric representation of space: effects of the number of objects, caused a stir when it was published in 2006.

"The findings in that paper were evidence for a new kind of model for how we process information as we move around," Wang said. "The traditional view is that we build maps of the world and then we basically just plod our way around. What we showed is that we don't actually use maps of the world; we build up local ones, egocentric ones, asking 'where is that, relative to me.' We try to calculate coordinates as we move around. It's an online, dynamic system, rather than having a static map."

Wang said her theory was so controversial it took her five years to get it published.

"People just found it really hard to accept," she said. "I think now it's become a very strong candidate for models out there and people are taking it seriously."

Now, with recently earned tenure, Wang is again testing uncharted waters using the Cube as a vessel. In the past her collaborators had all come from psychology; now she is pursuing projects with computer scientists, mathematicians, and even physicists. One upcoming project involves applying her work in spatial cognition and navigation to artificial intelligence.

Intriguingly, she is starting a project exploring quantum mechanics and human consciousness and has pondered the topic of high-dimensional space in collaboration with Beckman researcher George Francis. Using the Cube, Wang is exploring what a four-dimensional world would mean to humans accustomed to merely three.

"What I'm interested in, is how the human mind could comprehend that, can we visualize what that is, can we get a sense of what that means if it was true," she said. "We use the Cube to generate a program that will mimic somebody flying through a four-dimensional world. Our eyes are designed to see three-dimensional objects but we can create a program where everything you see in the scene is something you would see if you were flying through a four-dimensional world.

"Then we use different tasks to see how people respond and learn to make judgments about how things really are when we put them in a four-dimensional world and test if people are really able to generate mental space in four dimensions."

Wang is a native of China who earned a Ph.D. in Computational Cognitive Science from MIT in 1999. She is excited about future projects such as investigating a theory about the mind and quantum mechanics in collaboration with Tony Leggett and Paul Kwiat from the Department of Physics.

"There is a long-lasting mystery about how quantum mechanics works and there is a theory that it actually has some connection with human consciousness," she said. "I don't know where it's going to go; it's one of those very exploratory, high risk kinds of projects, but fun."

This article is part of the Spring 2008 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.