The senior team presented their research at the ISAT symposium.

Carter Elliott, Veronica Bargerstock and Steven Nguyen sat huddled in front of a small computer in Elliott’s apartment. The three senior integrated science and technology (ISAT) majors had been creating a computer program for months, and yet nothing worked. 

The blue light from the computer screen was the only thing keeping them awake as the three continued pouring over their alpha and beta data, waiting for it to connect to the Oculus and appear. 

Giving it another try, the three plugged in the data into the Oculus again. When it finally worked, the three erupted into pandemonium. 

“It was like it was an ‘Endgame’ moment,” Elliott said. “Everyone’s cheering because it’s like ‘mission accomplished’ … That was a whole semester of development right there and development troubles.”

Now, after two years of research and development, Elliott, Bargerstock and Nguyen are handing over their project to their junior team: Karina Howard, Robert “RJ” Look Jr., Braeden O’Quinn and Lyle Rodgers, who will continue the project next year.

“I was just intrigued by the whole thing,” Rodgers said. “I just thought [it] was really interesting. I’ve always been fascinated by virtual reality. So, I just thought [it] would be something cool to pick up and just learn something new.”

Together, the seven have completed a comprehensive study on virtual reality video games and its effect on rehabilitating vestibular dysfunction, an issue in the inner ear that affects balance. During testing, the teams focused within college-aged participants, but the eventual goal is for the study to be effective for all age ranges in a general physical therapy environment. 

Bargerstock led the team’s research in studying the working of the vestibular system and said the dysfunction can be caused by a wide range of issues, but most early cases studied were from head trauma. 

“A way to treat [vestibular dysfunction] is, there are exercises that you can do to fix it, but not like fully fixing, it just kind of helps improve their daily life,” Bargerstock said. “[We’re trying] to create a more entertaining way to keep people doing their therapy.”

They all shared their findings at the ISAT symposium on April 22, with Elliott, Bargerstock and Nguyen holding a presentation while Howard, Rodgers and Look Jr. participated in a poster display to pitch the group’s research to classmates, professors and researchers. 

Two years of research, reading, testing and paperwork was condensed into a 25-minute speech, a 22x28-inch board and a research paper. 

“I could probably give a 30 minute speech on the vestibular system and every component of it and to sum it down and make it enough for you guys to understand what it means, “ Bargerstock said during her portion of the team’s presentation. “There’s also a huge amount of development about the process of it and how long it went into and stuff. And we only touched on it for, like, four minutes maybe.”

Beginning the project

Starting in fall 2020, Elliott sat in his ISAT research class, listening to one professor after another share potential research projects to pursue. He said nothing was connecting with him or sparked any interest — until professor Jonathan Spindel shared his interest in reviving a 2016 engineering project on using virtual reality video games for vestibular rehabilitation.

“That’s the one that hit me,” Elliott said. “I love video games. But I also like helping people [in] kind of untraditional ways. And I was like, it’s a creative project. It allows us to solve a problem … while doing science, but also not just doing straight lab work.”

Once Elliott, Bargerstock and Nguyen joined the project, they began looking at having a junior team to help with data collection, and to carry on the project. That’s when Howard, O’Quinn, Look Jr. and Rodgers all found out about the research and chose to get involved. 

“When I saw how it’s actually going [to help] other people, I think that’s when it kind of clicked,” Howard said. 

Bargerstock and Nguyen both found their projects in a similar manner, but Elliott was the one to take the lead on the project’s development. Using the Oculus — a household virtual reality headset — the three began to look into what the research could look like and how to fund it. 

Their answer was the Madison Trust Fund. The public funds gave the group roughly $6,500 to work with, with donations still being accepted. 

“We just talked about what our project was like, gave a little more [of] why we’re doing it and a little more insight of what’s happening, what’s going on,” Howard said. 

When it came time to create the project, three different video game environments were made from scratch. Nguyen took charge of the environment creation, and after doing multiple rounds of testing, the team decided on a relaxing campfire scene with light music in the background. It took nearly the whole semester for Nguyen to create the three different environments — an alpha, beta and the final version. 

“When making consumer products, you have to take into account that everyone of [any age] is  willing to buy it,” Nguyen said, “so you have to accommodate every single person that would buy your consumer product.”

The teams created three tasks to study the new rehabilitation system, all by exercising simple motions using the X, Y and Z axes. They decided on one-step mini games, calling them “pass the rock,” “feed the fire” and “follow the firefly.”

They’ve tested college students and their reactions to these games — both with the Oculus and through physical replicas to test how each subject enjoyed the experience and whether there were different effects in the virtual reality games compared to the physical. Each participant completed a survey and were assigned to one of the three mini games, then completed a follow-up survey to share thoughts on the physical and virtual parts of the therapy exercises.

“Without [virtual reality] exercises, nobody really felt anything,” Elliott said,  “and if they did, they wouldn’t really want to do it. But with VR exercises, they felt something and they wanted to do — it’s not boring. It was awesome.”

With Elliott, Bargerstock and Nguyen graduating, the junior team has the opportunity to learn from their research and the senior group’s findings and continue to evolve this research in their own way. Look Jr. said the seniors were responsible for the more “creative” elements of the research, such as the games selected and environment used, but now these four juniors can take their own ideas and see it in reality. 

The four juniors plan to submit a request for a JMU-sanctioned Institutional Review Board (IRB) this summer to do another round of research testing. They said they’re interested in expanding the number of games available to use and want to start their formal testing earlier than the senior team did.

“We’ll fill out to get started now and get most of the stuff we don’t want to have to do in the fall [now],” Look Jr. said. “It would be very beneficial so we can have more time to do the study and try to find people to do it over the course of more time.”

Once Elliot, Bargerstock and Nguyen walk across the graduation stage, Look Jr., Howard, Rodgers and O’Quinn will begin their search for a new junior team to continue the cycle of researchers and the project moving forward. It’ll be a few more years before the research can be used in everyday physical therapy, so the junior team said they’re willing to take their time with a new set of data and continue to hand down the project each year until it’s ready. 

For now, though, the focus is to enjoy the summer and dive into more research. 

“We’ll be in contact with [the junior team] when we leave, but it’s not gonna be as easy as seeing you on campus,” Elliott said. “So just kind of getting things nailed down, helping them get ideas out on the board for what they want to do. And then kind of helping them like okay, do this, try doing this first and do this, kind of giving them a little bit of a timeline.”

Contact Madison Hricik at For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.