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SFU 2019 Vanier scholar explores impact of virtual reality on chronic illness

June 25, 2019

By Kevin Cherney

Could virtual reality (VR) become a tool to support people suffering from chronic illness? Simon Fraser University student Denise Quesnel thinks so.

Quesnel, a PhD student in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) is one of six SFU researchers recently awarded Vanier scholarships. Her research hopes to contribute to adaptive, accessible technology for adults with chronic illness, improving their overall social, emotional and mental well-being.

“I am honoured to have received a three-year Vanier Graduate Student Scholarship to support this research,” says Quesnel. “VR has the potential to transform people’s lives for the better… But because it is so new, we still have a lot to learn about how VR can do this.”

Valued at $50,000 per year, Vanier scholarships help attract and retain world-class doctoral students, establishing Canada as a global centre for excellence in research and higher learning.

The scholarship selection committee judges applications based on three criteria: academic excellence, research potential and leadership. Up to 166 scholarships are awarded each year.

With a background in user experience design and visual special effects in the film industry, Quesnel draws upon nearly 20 years of VR experience allowing her to bring an interdisciplinary approach to her work.

As a member of SIAT’s iSpace Lab, Quesnel works under the supervision of professor Bernhard Riecke to focus on the impacts of ‘positive technologies.’

“The development of incredible technology and art doesn’t happen in a silo.”

When asked about her favourite collaboration, she cited a project with the Centre for Digital Media, SIAT undergraduates and Global Mitacs students called AWE: Awe-Inspiring Wellness Environments.

“This is what I like most at SFU,” says Quesnel. “Our work often goes beyond the iSpace lab and into other labs at SIAT, departments at SFU, and even international collaborations.”

According to Quesnel, 53 per cent of Canadians live with the pain and burden of chronic illness. “While many technologies make us more productive and higher performing, few enhance social and emotional well-being in individuals with chronic conditions.”

“There’s a pretty big gap in knowledge on how we can make VR experiences and technology that may support people living with chronic illness, but the health care and technology sectors are aware of the transformational potential of VR,” says Quesnel.

“I want to help bridge that gap with my research.”

SFU's 2019 Vanier Scholars

Read more about the research from SFU’s 2019 Vanier scholars in their own words:

Abdelrahman Askar (engineering science) who is studying microelectronics and how to secure sustainable energy sources that are flexible and efficient.

Katherine Hanniball (clinical psychology) whose research explores the impact of ethnicity, age and gender on psychopathy assessment.

Sarah Johnson (biological sciences) for her research on Canadian bumble bee conservation.

Natalie Kinloch (health sciences) whose work identifies genetic features that prevent the HIV virus from replicating.

Kathryn Nurse (computing science) for her study of graph theory.

Denise Quesnel (School of Interactive Arts and Technology) whose research will examine how virtual reality can support people with chronic illness.

All interviews coordinated and compiled by Stacey Makortoff, SFU Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies