ScIPhone: Science in the world of Apps

ScIPhone: Science in the world of Apps

Science is everywhere, nowhere more so that the smartphone arena. But along with the high-tech that makes up the devices, science has also invaded the App market. Whether it be the, pseudoscientific apps which tell you when you are going to die or apps for peer-reviewed research. In this post I will review some of the science Apps that are out there:

NEJM Image Challenge (download here)

It is an interesting App idea, showing pictures medical conditions and then quizzing you on what it could be. It made me feel a little bit like I was House and I can see the app being useful for med students (I was rubbish at it!). However, there was one slight draw back to the app, when you are on the tube you don’t particularly want a big photo of deformed or diseased genitalia appearing on your phone…it tends to make people look at you like you are a crazy person!

Pros: Scientifically accurate and informative

Cons: Very difficult without a trained medical background, costs money, awkward commuting experiences.

Physics Box

This is an App claiming to contain a series of physics games. In one game “Ragdoll Shooter” you fire manikins at a target and the other you fire bombs. The physics claim is only due to them using a physics engine to power the dolls movements. The ragdoll game is quite fun, but there is really no difference between it and the bomb game.

Pros: Quite fun, free

Cons: No actual science, no variation in Game play

Merk – PSE HD (download here)

This is a periodic table app made by Merk pharmaceuticals. It looks very nice and polished and by clicking on the elements it contains lots more information about them.

Pros: Very informative, scientifically accurate.

Cons: Doesn’t do anything extraordinary with the app format

Genetic Code (download here)

Now this may be quite a geeky admission but I think this is a very cool little app. It let’s you enter three DNA bases and it will tell you what it codes for. I imagine this would be pretty useful for researchers.

Pros: Free, science geek novelty factor, could be useful for actual research.

Cons: Little practical use for most people.

So there we have a quick sample I am aware that there are many more science apps out there. If you have any good suggestions for apps to be reviewed drop me a comment below. This potentially may become a regular feature.

Life’s a Game: Video Games as a Model for Behaviour

Life’s a Game: Video Games as a Model for Behaviour

Crouching amongst the wreckage of an apartment block I look through a shattered window and see an enemy running and trying to find a place to hide. I pick up my Intervention M-200, take a breath, get his head lined up in the cross hair and pull the trigger.

I have at various points in my life gone through phases of being, what you might call, a ‘gamer’. The scenario above was a frequent one that occurred when I used to play the previous Call of Duty game, Modern Warfare 2. I amassed an ‘on-line kill’ total of around 10,000. My ‘real life kill’ total is thankfully 0. So, it would seem that if you want to find out about me, monitoring my activities in the game would be not the most accurate way of finding information!

However, scientists have been using video games to look at real world psychology. In research published in ‘Cyberpsychology, Behaviour , and Social Networking’ virtual reality (VR) has been used to look at high-level social phenomena. The researchers, from Cardiff, outlined several advantages of using a virtual reality situation including, enhanced control, easy content modification and relative low cost.

Figure 1: A VR re-enactment of the Milford experiment

The study aimed to look at the reduced likelihood of helping bystanders whilst under varying time pressure during a task. This study is similar to the famous ‘Good Samaritan Study’ carried out by Darley and Baston, but places removes the focus on religion and instead looks at the virtual realm. Other studies that have crossed the VR-real life divide includes the infamous Milford experiment.

The participants were placed in the world of the popular game Half Life 2. This allowed the researchers more controll than other VR worlds such as SecondLife or World of Warcraft.

The study had two main parts. In experiment 1 the subjects were asked to complete a simple task (get to the exit of the 3D Maze), whilst (like the Good Samaritan study) the amount of time pressure they are placed under varies (24 participants were given time pressure, with 20 given less time pressure). Whilst completing this task the patients were given several opporunities to help virtual characters that requested assistance, both in the presence of ‘by standers’ and without. 

Figure 2: The VR environment from experiment 2

In the second experiment, they looked more at the ‘bystander effect’  (the theory that when there are more bystanders there is a decreased individual responsibility to help as ‘someone else will do it’). To do this they increased the number of virtual characters in the maze and asked the participant to pretend as if they were real (although, surely a better way to have this effect would have been to have said they were being controlled by real people).

In both situations the maze was made up of 4 different sorts of rooms, an instruction room, 2 obsevation rooms, 14 assistance  rooms and an exit room. In the observation room the participants could see one character helping another by smashing crates behind which they were stuck. In the assistance rooms the participants had the choice of whether they would help in a similar way. In both experiments half of the assistance rooms were populated with bystanders. But, experiment 2 had in each room as 19 opposed to the 4 in expiment 1. The bystanders “displayed various casual movements like turning their heads but ignored requests for assistance”.

The results interestingly were similar to those of their real world equivalents. Experiment 1 showed that increased time pressure decreases the help given to those in need (Figure 3), as in the Good Samaritan Study. Although the presence of bystanders had no significant effect in each time situation.

Figure 3: A graph showing that in a VR world increased time pressure decreases helpfulness

 The lack of bystander effect in this experiment was attributed by the researchers to the VR bystanders not being convincing enough meaning that there was no “diffusion of responsibility ad fear of embarassment”. This was seens as the major drawback of the VR method.

However, in contrast to the findings of experiment 1, experiment 2 did show a significant difference between the bystander and non bystander rooms. This could be attributed to either of the two variables between the experiments, the number of bystanders or the participants being asked to pretend they were real.

The authors of the paper, Kozlov and Johanssen argue that VR is a useful tool in measuring factors that are difficult or impossible to control in the real, such as behaviour when escaping a burning building. However, I can’t help but feel that despite the success of the experiment a real world experiment, money no object, would be better at monitoring psychology as the lack of real world consequences is an issue for VR experimentation.

So, would I be a merciless killing machine if WW3 ever descends? No, I think most likely I would be sat quivering in a corner. But, the research does raise some very interesting questions about virtual behaviour.  

To sum up my closing point here is a funny little video about killing your characters on the Sims, something which as a young teen thought was very funny (dont judge me!):

Kozlov MD, & Johansen MK (2010). Real behavior in virtual environments: psychology experiments in a simple virtual-reality paradigm using video games. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 13 (6), 711-4 PMID: 21142998

Darley, J., & Batson, C. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27 (1), 100-108 DOI: 10.1037/h0034449

Slater M, Antley A, Davison A, Swapp D, Guger C, Barker C, Pistrang N, & Sanchez-Vives MV (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments. PloS one, 1 PMID: 17183667