VR and Empathy: A Journey
At my PBL school, students generally start a new venture project every quarter. This quarter, I’m facilitating a venture project class called “Virtual Reality, Real Feelings” – about the crossroads of VR and empathy. The purpose of this venture is to explore how VR technology can immerse someone in a world so much that it changes their perception of the world. The students will select an inquiry question and create a VR mini-game or experience designed to change someone’s perspective.
It’s a really ambitious project and I’m more than a little terrified. We’ve essentially got 8 weeks to pull this off.
As part of our school opening, we got quite a lot of grant money for new technology. I lobbied hard for VR equipment. I have noticed how this technology inspires curiosity, engagement, and wonder. Those emotions are powerful catalysts for learning and so I see tremendous potential for using VR as an educational tool. We secured 3 powerful gaming computers with Oculus Rift S headsets, and I also purchased 12 Oculus Quest headsets and 20 decent laptops to do software development. My class has 23 students, so we have enough computers for every kid to have one and students can share headsets with a partner.
We set up the Rift systems first, and set them up in our school gallery so students could play VR games after school such as Beat Saber. I believe in using the tech for fun, because again, emotions and curiosity. 🙂 It also builds a sense of community and a shared sense of taking care of the equipment and fairness.
Before the venture started, I had to get all of the Quests set up. We have a school account on the Oculus store, so I used that along with my own phone at home to charge, update, and install apps on all 12 of the Oculus Quests. It took 2 entire evenings to do.
I brought the Quests back to school, and as luck would have it, there was an empty cabinet that exactly fit 4 Quest boxes side by side on each shelf. We drilled a hole in the back and put powerstrips in the bottom, and zip-tied the chargers to the cabinet in bundles. Each Quest box, headset, and touch controllers are labeled with their corresponding numbers, using silver Sharpie. A couple of students helped me set up our charging cabinet and get the Quests on the school wifi. We got some containers of sanitizing wipes to clean the headsets off at the end of every class. We need to work hard to keep them clean and in good condition!
It is very helpful that when you want an app on all 12 Quests, it only needs to be bought once on the school account and then all headsets can install it. The Oculus Store, unlike Steam, does not limit you to play a game on one headset at a time. All 12 can be running the same experience. It makes the software part of the setup very affordable. However, it means we can’t play multiplayer experiences unless we get more Oculus accounts and pay for the apps again.
All of this happened the day before class started. We still don’t have the development laptops, so I’m having the students empathize and design in the meantime. This is an important part of the design cycle and it’s actually convenient that we don’t have the computers, so we can focus on doing our planning well.
For the first week, this is what we did.
Before the class: several students and I attended Colorado State University’s XR Symposium over a weekend, to connect with our local university and get some ideas and inspiration.
Day 1: We introduced the class with getting-to-know-you activities, a slide presentation about the history, technical specs, and impact of Virtual Realty. We discussed the XR Symposium, and we created a class charter.
The slide presentation I used is below. You are welcome to use any of the information if you want. Here’s the link to it:
Day 2: We reviewed the learnings from yesterday, and then I gave the students a sort-of scavenger hunt I created. I called it a Questival. The goal was for students to try out 10 different VR experiences, articles, or videos, and journal about what they learned along the way. I curated some experiences that would either evoke curiosity or emotion. The VR apps I included were:
Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. This experience only works on the PC-based headsets, not on the Quest. In a disappointing twist, I could get this app to work at my house but not on our school PC’s and I don’t know why. On the school Rift S machines, the app would show up on the monitor but we never could get it to display right in the headset. I tried for a couple of days, and eventually we just demoed it for the entire class, on a big smart monitor, by holding the headset and having a student use the touch controllers. It worked, but wasn’t as immersive as actually being in it. The point of this experience, however, could still be fulfilled. In this VR Empathy app, a couple of aspects make it really powerful and interesting. One is that the programming and game design is not that complicated. You point and click at objects, and simple things happen like a sound plays, or an animation runs. It is an app in the style that a student could easily create. The other powerful aspect is that it’s not just a video, it’s interactive. I wondered if the simple choices you had made it more powerful than just an immersive video. Does the act of having to choose which items to sell create more empathy than just watching someone else do it? Does it matter that you get to choose the color of your hands?
Traveling While Black is an anti-racism experience. It is not interactive, it’s an immersive video – but it has some touches that make it more powerful than just a video. The perspective of sitting in Ben’s Chili Bowl listening to a crowd having a conversation is a powerful one, and I liked how images were embedded into the scenery to make the stories come to life. It’s a very good storytelling experience and the students thought it was powerful. Especially the white students.
6×9: A Solitary Confinement Experience is one the students have to navigate to on YouTubeVR. I did have to go in and unblock it, since the content is flagged as “restricted”, so test it at school first before you try it with students. It is intense, but not inappropriate. I liked it because it’s an immersive animation rather than just a video made with a 360 camera. The models of the cell and furniture, the paint animations, etc are all created and not photographed. And again, it’s something the students could create, not technically challenging, but powerful storytelling anyway. It’s about the experience rather than the realism. Students had no idea this was something that happened in the US, and before I watched the video, I didn’t know it was so widespread. It opened our eyes to one of the ways the criminal justice system has overstepped its bounds.
Job Simulator was an experience I curated because it evokes emotions of surprise and joy, and it’s an example of good game design that’s specific to VR. You could not create the same experience on a flat computer screen and get the same emotions. In VR, you need to design your experience with caution about movement – otherwise you’ll make your users sick! Standing or teleporting experiences are fine. Anything that involves walking or flying needs to be approached with extreme caution or you run the risk that many, many people will not use your app because they get queasy. We also discussed that although people love realistic video games, a VR experience doesn’t have to be realistic to make you feel totally immersed in it. Low-poly graphics are sometimes just what you need. They highlight the interaction rather than the object itself.
These were some of the best VR apps and experiences I had found that really get at the empathy and VR connection. I put other articles and videos in the Questival worksheet, and students worked on this on and off for the entire week. Here’s the worksheet:
I got a lot of joy from watching the kids work on this and seeing their surprise, curiosity and engagement.
Day 3: We continued working on the Questival assignment, and I gave students the prompt of considering a curiosity question (or a few candidates) for their research project. As they explored different applications and uses of VR, I wanted them to hold in their minds the questions that were coming up they wanted to dig into more. They will take one of those questions and turn it into their solo research project. Some examples of curiosity questions:
What are haptics and where will they go in the future?
How is VR used in Military / Defense situations?
How can people explore identity or body image using VR?
What are the impacts of deforestation?
What is the history of 3D animation?
Can VR be used to eliminate racism?
How can we get people to accept and care for refugees from other countries?
The students came up with some great questions on their own and I’m excited to see where their explorations take them.
Day 4: Some students, because of absences or working slowly or not knowing what was expected, were still working on the questival. For students that were finished, I wanted them to start exploring creation tools in VR. They could use Tilt Brush, Medium, SculptrVR, or Sketchup to participate in a build challenge with the theme of: Halloween. We’ll review everyone’s halloween artwork on Monday and award a prize to the best halloween designs. Artwork made in any of these media can be imported into Unity and built into an app, and I have some students who are incredible artists – unlike me!
As we continue into the coming week, I just had a couple of observations about working with class sets of VR equipment.
- Space is such a tough problem to solve. One classroom with furniture in it is a tough space for a dozen groups of students working in VR. I generally had 6-7 VR users in the classroom and then others would use the public spaces outside of the classroom. This created some conflicts when students were noisy, or were perceived as being out of class/goofing off. I had some colleagues frustrated with me because they felt their classes were disturbed. So I need to set some clear boundaries and expectations for space that help the students work while not disturbing other classes. It’s a hard problem. VR takes a bigger footprint than a school desk.
- Overall, I am very, very pleased with how easy the Oculus Quest headsets are to use. The students were able to figure them out with very little instruction. They used the sanitizing wipes and our homemade charging station very responsibly, and the ratio of 1 headset per pair of students seems just about right. It’s easy for me to manage the apps on them as well. If I purchase an app, the students can load it on a headset with no intervention from me.
- We re-norm OFTEN about expectations when using VR equipment. I boil it down to 3 basic principles:
- Be Safe.
- Be Kind and Respectful.
- Take Care of the Equipment.
Being safe involves using the wrist straps and making sure your play area is secure and nobody walks through an active play area. Being kind and respectful involves honoring time limits and making sure everyone gets a turn. Taking care of the equipment means we always play on carpeted areas, we hand off equipment carefully, and we take care to power down, wipe, and plug in everything when done.
We discuss these several times a week. You really can’t do this too much.
This coming week, we’ll take a field trip to our local science and technology museum, work on our research projects, and start choosing themes for the student-made apps. After this week, I think our computers will be in and we can start learning how to create apps in Unity and animations in Tvori.