Graceful tropical fish circle around me as a sea turtle glides overhead. Slowly and steadily, hundreds of pink jellyfish swarm from behind and a curious striped creature moves in for a better look at what I assume is my virtual reality headset. In awe, I blindly reach out and it pulls away with alarm. The scene is so realistic I’m speechless.

Don McMahon is laughing. “You look pretty engaged right now,” says the director of the Washington State University Neurodiversity Lab located in the College of Education. “Fun is engaging and engaged students learn,” he’s been intoning, seemingly miles away in the background.

McMahon is an assistant professor in special education with a passion for the world of assistive technology. He’s the campus guru when it comes to incorporating sophisticated technologies like virtual reality (VR) into K-16 teaching and learning. Though his methods apply to all students, McMahon’s primary goal is to promote independent living in people with disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome.

The Neurodiversity Lab is a merger between the College of Education’s Assistive Technology Lab and the Neurocognitive Science Lab. The new operation, which opened in 2015, offers faculty, students, and community members a unique opportunity to try equipment and collaborate on research projects.

“What’s really great about this space is that it’s an open partnership for so many different groups of people,” says McMahon. Researchers from across the University use the technology for studies ranging from eye tracking in dogs to autism studies to ROTC officer training.

McMahon, himself, specializes in augmented reality (AR) and its use in devices like the Microsoft HoloLens, which superimposes digital holograms onto real world environments. He’s published several studies showing how AR can help children learn skills such as tooth brushing and memorizing scientific vocabulary.

Building on that concept, the lab also uses 360-degree cameras paired with VR goggles to enhance cultural understanding, says Jonah Firestone, assistant professor of science education and director of the neurodiversity sister lab at WSU Tri-Cities.

“The idea is that students in Hispanic, Muslim, and other cultures can film their home lives and share them with teachers through VR,” he says. “It decreases assumptions and allows teachers to adapt their methods accordingly.”

McMahon says VR immersion is also used to prepare ROTC recruits for the challenges they’ll face when deployed to war-torn areas like Iraq or Syria.

The Neurodiversity Lab’s pioneering spirit likewise extends to man’s best friend, the dog, through studies on the human-animal bond, says Phyllis Erdman, executive associate dean for academic affairs in the College of Education.

Border Collie, Dazzle, with doggles. Photo Katherine Martucci, courtesy Winter Herron
Border Collie, Dazzle, with “doggles.”
Photo Katherine Martucci, courtesy Winter Herron

Today, her sweet-faced Labrador retriever, Duke, is patiently being fitted with “doggles.” Winter Herron ’16, dressed in a College of Veterinary Medicine “Class of 2020” t-shirt, is kneeling beside him adjusting straps.

For her undergraduate Honors College thesis, Herron designed and built canine eye-tracking equipment based on models used for humans. Her goal was to determine if dogs, like humans, show a left gaze bias—the tendency to look at the right side of someone’s face first and most often.

Humans show most of their emotion on the right side, so people instinctively look to the left to read the right side of someone’s face. Previous studies had suggested this phenomenon also occurs in dogs, and Herron wanted to confirm it with eye-tracking cameras. Erdman was her mentor.

“Winter had no training in electronics,” Erdman says. “We gave her the equipment and with a combination of popsicle sticks and tape, she figured it out. I thought that was pretty innovative.”

And successful too. The experiment revealed that dogs do indeed read our faces and emotions. Using three cameras and special software, Herron demonstrated that nine out of ten dogs in the study showed a clear left gaze bias. She hopes to publish the
findings.

“It was a lot of fun,” says the future veterinary ophthalmologist as she checks Duke’s doggled eyes for squinting. “The dogs thought it was interesting too—they weren’t distressed at all.”

Want to learn more about human-animal interaction? WSU Global Campus offers a continuing education course.