By Amihan Tayag, Speech Language Pathologist

I have always been interested in how technology can help people with disabilities. For example, people with autism often struggle understanding emotions and there is huge potential for technology to help with this. I was thrilled when I was invited to attend the Shanghai VR Assistive Tech Make-a-thon. This event, coordinated by Nestworks in partnership with Shanghai VR Meetup, brought together professional and amateur hobbyists from all over China. They worked with special education and allied health professionals to brainstorm ways that virtual reality can help people with a range of problems.

Virtual reality is a growing technology. Companies such as Oculus Rift are making headsets that allow people to move inside a virtual world. The headset completely surrounds your view, and as you move your head and body the pictures you see change accordingly. So people have the option of pressing buttons to walk forward, as well as moving through the digital space by actually walking forward, utilizing external cameras to pinpoint one’s position in space. This technology is being used for a number of different purposes, including training, gaming and education. The purpose of this conference was to see if programmers could come up with a way to use the technology to help people therapeutically.

When I arrived there were four groups working on different projects. Their themes focused on creating a game that will enhance gross and fine motor skills for children with Cerebral Palsy and empowering children with autism on how to handle real-life scenarios. The other two groups also chose to focus on autism and aimed to focus on improving their abilities on how to understand and react to emotions and building a program that will help with job training.

When I teach at ELG I use different mediums to help the children understand both their own emotions and those of others. Asking them to point to cartoons or photographs that display emotions or using color-coded symbols that depict feelings can help them communicate what they are experiencing or how they perceive others. This idea could be potentially transferred to a digital space, where one would guess the feelings of characters in the game. The advantage to this over real life is that the stakes are much lower; if you get it wrong in the game no one is offended or upset, so it is a safe space to try and improve interaction skills. There is also immediate and clear feedback in a predictable system, which will possibly help them to handle these skills when they are needed in real life. In a virtual world you have control, and can go back and try as many times as you like.

The group I joined was brainstorming how to build a supermarket training program. They wanted to create a program that would provide job-training tasks. Their concept was to provide the player with different opportunities to role-play a supermarket scene. One of their ideas was to have the player work behind the cash register and interact with customers who exhibit different types of emotion. Another concept they had in mind was to capitalize on a common strength of children with autism; repetitive and routine-based tasks.

I believe that together we were able to make real progress. We decided that jobs such as working the checkout might be difficult for people with autism as it requires a lot of interface with customers, which can be challenging. Also, we worked on the possible benefits of having an educator be able to wear their own headset and enter the game, interacting with and guiding the student through the task.

On Sunday the teams presented their prototypes and the team I was working with presented theirs. It was a simple task of sorting stock items by type. Although this is a long way from the finished product I am confident that they can make something worthwhile.

From interacting online to providing different spaces to learn in, technology will be a big part of the future of special education. I’m excited by what I have seen and I am hopeful for the future.