Hunter Hoffman is a cognitive psychologist, a memory expert, a pioneer in applying virtual reality to pain and anxiety relief, a legendary workaholic...

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Hunter Hoffman is a cognitive psychologist, a memory expert, a pioneer in applying virtual reality to pain and anxiety relief, a legendary workaholic, the owner of perhaps the messiest work space in town and now, a … design artist?

The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum recently cited his work as one of the best examples of design art between 2003 and 2006. Hoffman is the creator of SnowWorld, an immersive virtual reality program he has nurtured the past decade. The program sends acute-burn patients flying through glacial caverns, past cute penguins and looming snowmen, and arms them with snowballs that shatter targets into shards. Pain requires attention so SnowWorld aims to distract and redirect thought as a way to lessen the effects of the excruciating wound cleansing process.

Since the honor, a version of SnowWorld has been traveling the country and will be on display this week at the Pacific Science Center as part of Life Sciences Research Weekend.

Hoffman, 48, grew up in Kansas reading Carl Sagan and dreaming of becoming a hard-core scientist, a planetary geologist perhaps. So this latest label of “designer” puzzled him until he perused the list of other honorees (which included architect Rem Koolhaas for the downtown Seattle library) and realized that functionality defines good design. And functionality is what his VR research is all about.

Typically, scientists get more specific in their research as time and career march on, but Hoffman says his arc has been “an inverted pyramid.” That’s because using virtual reality as analgesia touches upon many disciplines, ranging from computer technology to the intricacies of how the mind processes stimuli and memory. And today, he and his VR system are also tackling post-traumatic stress, with soldiers returning from Iraq and New Yorkers still traumatized by the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“I’ve been hard to define all along, and that’s been part of the fun of it,” says Hoffman, speaking with a trace of Midwestern drawl and inside his lab at the University of Washington’s Fluke Hall. “I’ve been able to work with really smart people in a variety of fields. I think you’re more likely to be successful if you’re realistic about what you know and what others know better than you.”

In fact, the UW’s Human Interface Technology Lab (HITLab), with which he has been affiliated since 1993, seems the perfect place for him. It is about as eclectic as he is, and keen on merging the futuristic with real-world application. The lab is also collaborative. Engineers and computer scientists aided the development of SnowWorld as have companies spun from the lab.

Hoffman also owes much to David Patterson, a psychologist and pain expert with the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center, where the device has been used and studied for the past decade. Their tests consistently have shown that VR analgesia makes a difference, so the two continue to refine the program and spread its use.

Patients and test subjects each wear a helmet with goggles that control their view and headphones that pipe sound effects and gentle music from musician Paul Simon, a fan of the project. Patterson, who also studies how SnowWorld can aid with pain-blocking hypnosis, said the collaboration has exceeded his expectations.

Their partnership began because Hoffman, then a post-doctoral student, “relentlessly pestered” Patterson, who now calls Hoffman a pioneer in the burgeoning field and more than a big-thinker.

“Noble” efforts

“He works, I’d say, a minimum of 100 hours a week,” Patterson says. “I am not exaggerating — every time I’ve called his office number at 8:30 or 9 on a Sunday night or whenever, really, he’s there. I don’t think people realize what he has done to make this happen. He basically has done this with few resources. Normally a system of that quality takes a Disney, Nintendo or Pixar. He just made it happen, basically like a guy working in his garage.”

Hoffman also thrives on the freedom and flexibility of the lab. He doubts he could work in a more structured environment. In fact, he says his best attribute is the willingness to move on when an idea doesn’t pan out no matter how much time he had invested, something of a luxury in university-based research.

Tom Furness started the lab and serves as its director emeritus. He was a pioneer in VR, creating a “virtual cockpit” for the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s. He calls Hoffman and his effort “noble” and says that even when Hoffman irked him, it was always caused by well-intentioned zeal. Then there is Hoffman’s workstation, a sprawl of wires, open equipment cases and upside-down manuals.

“He gets so excited and wrapped up in what he is working on he tends to forget all else,” says Furness, chuckling. “We had the board scheduled to come through the lab so I asked him to spruce up his space a little. So he put a big screen over his cubicle so nobody could see in. That was his solution to that.”

Hoffman began by using virtual reality to test memories. Then he created SpiderWorld, a program designed to help people confront their fear of the critters. At first, subjects would simply enter an imaginary kitchen with a spider on the far side of it. Eventually, he would have them touch what felt like a spider as they reached out toward one they saw in their goggles. As with his post-traumatic stress disorder work today, it was a way to “turn the tables” on fear and pain.

“Magical thinking”

He discovered cognitive psychology at the University of Tulsa. It allowed him to incorporate his scientific and computing backgrounds with a new and fertile field. So he simultaneously studied memory and bioelectromagnetics.

“At Tulsa, I took all these classes from this elderly professor who spoke with a thick accent, had this Dr. Zhivago vibe, and was known as a hard grader,” Hoffman recalls. “He let me do experiments in his old dusty psychophysics lab. He specialized in concepts of illusion and would do weird stuff like making people think a room they were in was bigger than it was.

“One of his classes was called ‘magical thinking,’ which basically looked at how people see connections that aren’t there. And that’s what VR is, basically. It’s a place where you create magical thinking by putting people in a place where they are not.”

What ultimately launched Hoffman’s arc was a paper he wrote as a student that got published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. That caught the attention of Princeton memory expert Marcia Johnson, who invited him to help her study how people separate real memories from imagined events. Johnson later helped Hoffman get into graduate school at the UW and work with professor Elizabeth Loftus, another noted memory expert.

Hoffman sped through grad school and found a home in the HITLab. He worked without pay for three years as the VR analgesia idea got off the ground and showed encouraging results. He says his girlfriend at the time thought he worked way too much and really would have thought so if she had known he was doing it without income. Eventually, donors and companies came aboard and momentum built.

What kept him going? Another sort of magical thinking — belief that it would work.

Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or