Alumnus discusses virtual reality

During a live videoconference on Thursday, Binghamton University alumnus Albert “Skip” Rizzo, class of 1991, discussed his experience as an undergraduate at BU, as well as the direction of his career path in clinical psychology.

Rizzo, a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California, runs a research group for affiliated laboratories that works to apply virtual reality and multimedia technology to psychological functioning.

He works in various labs that address psychological, cognitive and motor issues.

One lab in particular uses Microsoft Kinect, by which patients’ 3D movements are tracked and then translated into a character in a game.

Rizzo said that the technology turns boring, repetitive activities of physical and cognitive rehabilitation into a game in which patients use their bodies to interact.

“We keep people motivated, and they do stuff more regularly and more consistently,” Rizzo said.

Another lab that Rizzo described as on the “far reaches of the frontier” involves building artificially intelligent virtual humans.

Rizzo said that the research he did as an undergraduate student at BU instilled him with an appreciation for science and an understanding of the value of being a scientist.

Rizzo praised BU for both its appeal and opportunities.

“Binghamton still has some kind of sick charm that I really like,” he said. “There’s a quiet beauty to Binghamton.”

After graduation, Rizzo landed his first-choice internship at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Long Beach Healthcare System, a position that allowed him to work in brain injury rehabilitation and led to an interaction with a patient that spurred the idea for his research.

Rizzo found one of his patients, a 20-year-old male with a frontal lobe injury that made him easily distracted and less motivated, hunched under a tree, deeply engaged in a Gameboy.

“Here was a kid you couldn’t motivate for more than 20 minutes on any one type of a rehab task, but here he was glued to this thing, engaged in it … and he was a Tetris warlord,” Rizzo said. “That was when the light bulb when off, and I started thinking, maybe clinical practice can be enhanced by leveraging new technologies.”

That Christmas, Rizzo received a Nintendo NES system paired with the game “Sim City.” He brought the game in for his patients and quickly found that they loved it.

Rizzo’s interest in the then-new technology was furthered by an NPR report on designing kitchens virtually and a conference he attended called “Virtual Reality and Persons with Disability.”

“Between seeing that kid with the Gameboy, getting that Nintendo, hearing that NPR report and my boss showing me a conference about virtual reality and disabilities … those were all things you could never plan,” Rizzo said.

Macsood Khalilullah, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering, attended the conference in hopes of discussing with Rizzo the relation of his own major to Rizzo’s line of work.

“When I heard about this, I came down to see how it related, and if he knew of any transparency between health systems engineering and the virtual reality he’s doing,” Khalilullah said.

In his last remarks, Rizzo encouraged students to pursue their interests with passion.

“It’s up to you to escape what’s very comfortable,” he said. “You’ve got to be engaged. You’ve got to look around. Be curious about the world. If you’re afraid to do something, that’s the thing you should probably do.”