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New professor Ineke van der Ham on our dependence on GPS: 'It’s making us needlessly vulnerable'

Ineke van der Ham has been appointed professor of Technological Innovations in Neuropsychology on 1 January. She researches how virtual reality and games help people navigate better. And this matters, as good navigation skills are about more than coming home safely.

'Thirty to fifty per cent of people with non-congenital brain injury have difficulty finding their way home,' says Ineke van der Ham. 'That group is often more anxious, afraid of going out alone. This makes them less autonomous: 'I'll just wait for my partner to come home to do the shopping', I sometimes hear.' Apps like Google Maps do not provide a solution for them. 'This group also often has difficulty with GPS. They can no longer properly match the world on the screen with the physical world around them,' Van der Ham explains.

That is why she and her colleagues develop games that improve navigational skills. 'Serious games', they are called, because: 'They often look fun, but are really meant to improve skills.' In recent years, they worked on diagnostics and developed a so-called 'getting lost training’ (Verdwaaltraining)'. 'In this, we noticed that we were able to teach people a better strategy and that people regained their autonomy.' To help more people structurally, Van der Ham now wants to implement the training in healthcare. A long and complicated process, but as a newly appointed professor, she is happy to lean into it.

What makes it so complicated to implement this training in healthcare?

'Because there are many parties involved and the route to clinical practice is sometimes confusing. Finance, the legal side, IT, and logistics: everything has to be right. In addition, healthcare is overburdened: money is needed to free up people for this. You need early adopters, people who have confidence in such a project and get colleagues on board. Who keep telling others how important it is.'

'We noticed that people regained their autonomy through the training'

So isn't there an enthusiastic response in healthcare to the use of VR and games?

'Yes. It is different from a decade ago, though. 'This won't work with older people,' many people still thought then. Now the added value is really seen. But there is still a big gap between the world of startups, where the technology is developed, and healthcare, where it has to be used. Besides: you can't use VR for everything, you must be discerning. An intermediary is needed to make that translation between theory and practice, who connects technology and human cognition and has an eye for the complex logistics. I would like to be that person.'

'You can't use VR for everything'

In your research, do you only focus on how people with brain injuries navigate?

'No, I also do fundamental research into how healthy people interact with virtual space. So: how do we humans experience a virtual environment, and how does that differ from physical space? What spatial information do we use in the process? In that, I soon found out that there is no one way people experience VR. For instance, people with poorer spatial skills handle it differently. And in general, young men can handle VR the easiest. Which also makes sense, as this is also the group that plays games most often and is thus more familiar with the virtual world, but stereotypical beliefs also seem to play a role in this effect. I want to make this kind of knowledge useful for other colleagues, who can use it as a basis to develop applications themselves.'

Getting lost is no longer necessary since we have Google Maps, but as a result we are less able to find our way on our own. Do you worry about that?

'Yes. We see that spatial skills are changing even in healthy people. Even in the lecture hall, I sometimes see that students can no longer properly distinguish between left and right. In addition, cities are filled with all kinds of things that demand our attention, which makes focusing on the route increasingly difficult. It is handy that GPS comes to the rescue, but this complete dependence is not beneficial. Once you are in an unfamiliar place and your phone breaks down, there is nothing you can do. It is making us unnecessarily vulnerable.'

'It's convenient that GPS comes to the rescue, but that complete dependence is not helpful'

How is your own navigational ability?

'Haha, well, I'm not particularly good at finding my way myself, and I enjoy driving with GPS too. Especially when the road is busy. Still, it's good to keep training yourself in it from time to time.'

How do you do that?

'For example, by going to a new place, turning off your phone there and trying to find the way back on your own. With women, you often see that they then look for landmarks: what did I see along the way? Can I find that again? On average, men do it differently, looking for: where is north? Then I must go in that direction. How you do it doesn't matter, as long as it works for you'.

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