You're sitting at your desk. A teacher is writing on the chalkboard. A bus rumbles past the window. Kids are yelling in the playground outside. A paper airplane whizzes overhead. The school principal steps into the room, looks around, and walks out. A book falls off the desk next to you. Suddenly, the teacher hands you a pop quiz.
Don't panic! You aren't actually in school. You're in a "virtual classroom." Everything you see and hear is coming to you through a computer-operated display that you're wearing on your head like a pair of very bulky goggles.
Unlike the classroom, the technology is real. It's an innovative application of virtual reality, a type of technology that uses computer programs to simulate real-world (or even fantasy) situations. Wearing virtual-reality gear, you can find yourself sitting in a classroom, touring a famous museum, wandering across a weird landscape, zooming into space, or playing with a cartoon character. You don't have to leave your room.
Movie directors and video game producers have been using computers for years to create ever more realistic special effects. Some companies are now building three-dimensional fantasy worlds in which players, linked by computer networks, appear to meet and go on quests together. Virtual-reality gear that delivers images and sounds directly to your eyes and ears makes these fake worlds seem lifelike.
Some psychologists are also getting into the act. They see virtual reality technology as a useful tool for learning more about why people act as they do. It could help psychologists better identify and come up with solutions for behavior problems, for example.
"We've spent the last 100 years looking for certain laws in how people interact with the real world," says clinical psychologist Albert "Skip" Rizzo. "Now, we've got a powerful tool that lets us create worlds, control things, and see how people perform. This is a psychologist's dream."
Rizzo works in the school of engineering at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where he developed the Virtual Classroom and a related program called the Virtual Office.
Some kids can't sit still for long. They have a hard time paying attention to just one thing. They're easily distracted. They can get very impatient. They hate standing in line or waiting for their turn in a game or activity. They get bored pretty fast. They may also be impulsive—saying the first thing that comes to mind or interrupting someone else who's talking.
For certain kids, this problem is so severe that doctors have a name for it: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Perhaps as many as 1 out of every 20 kids under the age of 18 have characteristics of ADHD. Often, these kids have trouble getting through school and face other difficulties later in life.
Rizzo started developing the Virtual Classroom in 1999. He wanted to see if he could use it as a tool for testing and treating kids who have attention disorders.
Here's what you might see when you're wearing virtual-reality headgear that puts you in a "cartoon" classroom.
To diagnose ADHD, doctors typically test patients by giving them tasks that require attention. As part of one