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Photo of Hunter Hoffman HUNTER HOFFMAN

Hunter Hoffman spent a year conducting research with Marcia Johnson at Princeton University on reality monitoring: How people separate memories of real from memories of imagined events. Dr. Johnson recommended him to legendary memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus at the University of Washington who took him as a graduate student. In graduate school, he helped Dr. Loftus study the malleability of human memory for crimes and accidents (i.e., memory distortions caused by information encountered after the memory was formed).

Hunter received a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology (human memory and attention) at the U.W. Department of Psychology in 1992. Loftus and Hoffman are still doing research together studying how social influences (conformity) can influence what people remember.

In 1993, he began Psychology research at the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory, one of the largest VR research laboratories in the world.

Current Research interests:

  • Presence and physically touching virtual objects. The essence of immersive (helmet) virtual reality is the illusion people have of going inside the computer generated virtual environments, an experience known as presence in the virtual world. Hunter and colleagues are exploring the technique of letting people touch real objects (e.g., a furry toy spider), to make the virtual objects (e.g., a wiggly legged virtual spider seen in the helmet) more realistic. This technique is used to surprise Alan Alda in the Scientific American Frontiers episode Spiders!

  • Hunter was on the original team of the Virtual Reality Roving Vehicles (VRRV) Project, exploring the use of immersive VR in the public schools to help make learning more experiential (and fun). The VRRV team, was headed by U.W. Professor of Education Bill Winn at the HIT Lab, and energetic redhead Kimberley Osberg. They took VR out to over 50 public schools in the Seattle area, using a van.

    Fourteen science classrooms were chosen to get the full treatment. Kids in these classes were trained how to make 3-D objects with computers, and the students designed virtual worlds to communicate a scientific concept to other students (e.g., Carbon Cycle World). At the end of the semester, they got to go put on the VR helmet and go into the virtual world they had helped create. Students got a huge kick out of seeing the virtual objects they had created and learned a lot in the process, both about the scientific concept, and about computers.

  • Burn patient getting VR for pain reduction during physical therapyUse of VR for distracting burn patients from excessive pain during woundcare (in collaboration with Dave Patterson, and Research nurse Gretchen Carrougher from Harborview Burn Center, and Tom Furness, Director of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory). Burn wounds are often extremely painful, especially when the wounds are being cleaned to prevent infection. Hoffman, Patterson and colleagues are putting burn patients (especially children and teenagers) into VR during wound care and physical therapy, and are finding huge drops in how much pain the patients experience during their short visit to virtual reality.

  • Virtual Reality Monitoring. A collaboration with Jennifer Beecher, this project is a study on human memory for virtual vs real events. They are exploring how people remember whether an event actually occurred in the real world, or whether it happened in virtual reality, and situations where people are likely to get confused. Jennifer and Hunter are also collaborating with Professor Yukio Itsukushima from Japan University in Tokyo on a related memory experiment.

  • Miss Muffet demonstrates she is no longer afraid of real spiders after VR therapyVirtual Reality exposure therapy for treating spider phobia. Hunter is collaborating with clinical Psychologists Al Carlin and Azucena Garcia (from Spain) to see if physically touching the plump furry body of a virtual Guyana bird-eating tarantula helps spider phobics get over their fear of real spiders. (The answer is a big yes, watch Spiders! to find out more)
For more info and downloadable manuscripts, visit Hunter Hoffman's website.

See Hunter Hoffman's answers to Ask the Scientists questions.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.