Dabe Alan

Oculus Rift’s latest opportunity: revolutionizing special needs education with virtual reality

Oculus Rift’s latest opportunity: revolutionizing special needs education with virtual reality

Mathieu Marunczyn has long experimented with gaming technology in his work with students with special needs at the Jackson School in Victoria, Australia. We wrote about his promising work with his students and the Kinect in the past, and he’s also been testing the LEAP motion hardware at the school.

I was able to finally meet Marunczyn in person when I traveled to Melbourne for PAX Australia, and we made a beeline for my hotel room when he found out I had my Oculus developer kit with me. I ran him through a few demos, and he immediately began to think of ways that the technology would be helpful in the school. You can see a video of his first use of the technology embedded below.

He spoke with colleagues who specialize in teaching children with autism spectrum disorders for a bit, and then answered some of my questions about how virtual reality could change the way we teach, and help, special needs students, as well as the ways it could revolutionize all forms of education.

A portable time-out space

“Any educational environment could benefit from this device. In the case of my workplace, a special needs school, students often need more 'time out' or 'chill out' time away from their peers, class or teachers when compared to a mainstream setting,” Marunczyn said. “At Jackson School, some of our classes have rooms that cater to these needs.”

The Rift removes the need for specialized rooms, as it can create environments that are 100 percent virtual. Students can be placed in those environments even when surrounded by others with the use of the Rift and noise-cancelling headphones. Each laptop, Rift headset, and set of headphones creates a time out space that can be customized and personalized for each student.

“15 minutes of chill out/calm down time, with a non-obtrusive manner to pull kids out such as a flashing light or verbal stimulus saying 'time to finish,’ could have massive benefits and also means that a dedicated room for a chill out/sensory room space may not be needed,” he explained. “What's done to help kids at school could also be supported at home because the device is relatively affordable. A stronger collaboration between students/teachers/parents means improved lifestyle for students.”

“It can also be used to stimulate the mind for different learning experiences, as well as calm students who may potentially be over-stimulated at a point later in the day,” he said. 

What I didn’t expect to hear about was the possibility of combining virtual environments with certain scents, a therapy that is already in use for children with certain disorders.

“The integration of the Oculus Rift with the correct scent stimuli could be incredibly useful for developing a more desirable behavior from students who have a sensory processing disorder or auditory processing disorder, for modeling or shifting the thought process of these students,” Marunczyn continued.

“Imagine a calming visual environment such as the underwater environment or space travel, when you include the most appropriate audio and smell stimuli with these visual examples. There is tremendous potential for helping students function better throughout their day.”

Calm, soothing environments are one thing, but Marunczyn also works for students who find many standard interactions stressful. By modeling things like going to the doctor’s office, traveling in a car, or flying in a plane, they can role-play appropriate responses to stress and practice these situations in a controlled manner.

There are also ways to decouple auditory stimulus from these situations in a productive manner; if you teach children coping mechanisms in virtual reality and then introduce a certain song, for instance, the use of that song in the real-world environment can be a shortcut to children feeling that sense of calm and safety they experience in the virtual environment.

In many ways gaming is almost subsidizing these sorts of therapies. Just as Microsoft has made motion controls affordable with the Kinect, specialized virtual reality headsets used to cost thousands of dollars, require large, unwieldy equipment, and were out of reach for most schools. The Rift developer kits cost $300, work with standard laptops or desktop computers, and environments can be created using inexpensive, if not free, software such as Unity or the Unreal Development Kit.

Researchers and teachers could begin creating customized environments for groups of children with different needs and challenges, as well as provide customization options to specifically tailor the virtual worlds for individual students.

“For special needs settings, the potential uses for the device are limitless. It's also important to consider that for some students with special needs, they may also come from a volatile home environment so their disability is compounded by this,” Marunczyn told the Report. “School is their safe-zone and if coping strategies can be developed and internalized then they have a greater chance for success in life, and a greater opportunity to learn because their minds are calm and primed for learning. “

Placing students in history

“Something I've always tried to get my students to experience is the feeling of a young man or boy in the clutches of battle at Gallipoli with his fellow ANZAC soldiers,” Marunczyn said after a few minutes of thought. During one class period he used handfuls of paper balls thrown at students trying to reach the other side of the room to show the brutality of the situation.

The students complained that the “game” was rigged, they didn’t have a chance to survive. The point was made: Imagine if those paper balls were gunfire.

“After experiencing the depth and realism of the Oculus Rift the idea that students could feel what it was like to be faced with a rocky cliff edge as they get off a boat under heavy gunfire is an incredible concept,” he said. “Could this help students understand and value the sacrifice that many young Australians made during times of war? Absolutely.”

“Obviously some caution would have be taken as it could be too much for some students and there's always going to be the cases where 'teachers' will use it to babysit and claim that students are gaining an education. Everything in moderation and with rules, boundaries and limitations,” he explained.

We're in the beginning stages of using virtual reality in a school or therapeutic environment, but I've already put Marunczyn in touch with the people at Oculus; further experimentation and sharing the technology with other teachers and specialists at the Jackson School could begin in the near future.

This was an aspect of the technology many of us had barely considered, but Marunczyn and his colleagues are already enthusiastic about the possibilities and the low cost of modern virtual reality.