As you approach the activities room at the Centre de Réadaptation Marie-Enfant, you can hear the children’s laughter before you’re halfway down the hall. There are cardboard Google virtual reality viewers painted like Spiderman and big stick-on eyes spread out around the room, adorning the various young patients.
One girl asks to visit Istanbul and a volunteer quickly removes a phone from her viewer, taps on the screen, and slides it back into place. Moments later, the girl is swivelling her head from left to right, a huge smile on her face. A boy with the Spiderman viewer tests out a horror game, alternately shrieking and laughing as another volunteer swivels him in a circle. This is the culmination of a month’s worth of learning, programming, and designing for VR Passport, Osmos Academy’s virtual reality and 3D game development for a social purpose.
Osmos Academy is an innovative and diverse community of learners and leaders in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). Providing the collaborative environment and resources to allow members to learn and engage with new and emerging technologies, they also host workshops and classes for all skill levels. It’s all in an effort to close the technology gap and equip community members with the knowledge and support to create innovations of their own.
Most importantly, Osmos Academy believes in the importance of project-based learning to effect social change. VR Passport is their first campaign aiming to create social impact. It involves bringing virtual reality experiences to children in the hospital and letting them stamp printed passports with each virtual destination they visit.
This visit to the hospital is actually the third for VR Passport. On February 24 the group of volunteers, led by Osmos Academy cofounders Hannah Cohen and Gisele Ishema-Karekezi, visited the children for the first time to introduce different virtual reality experiences. There they could get an idea of what type of game would work best for the childrens’ unique situations.
Next was a set of workshops open to participants of any skill level. They were made up of a 3D game workshop on March 5 and a virtual reality workshop on March 6, to introduce some of the programming skills needed to work on the custom games for the kids at Centre de Réadaptation Marie-Enfant. This was followed by a week-long design sprint, where community members worked together to visualize and create a plan for the experience to bring to the children. They worked with the feedback provided by the volunteers who met with the children, parents, and medical professionals.
Now the volunteers have returned with prototypes of the current game-in-progress, an underwater adventure game, to have the children test it out and get more feedback. It’s a process that will be ongoing as they continue to come up with new modifications each time.
“We learned a lot coming back the second time,” Ishema-Karekezi told MTLinTech. “We realized that having an element that kept track of time and displayed that in some way would be very useful for certain patients with types of mental illness and autism that make compartmentalizing activities difficult.”
In this way, time could work as a therapeutic element of the virtual experience. And making modifications so that as many patients as possible can enjoy the game is the biggest reason they keep coming back.
“We want to eventually make this a permanent installation, and we want it to be accessible to all,” added Ishema-Karekezi.
Making the experience accessible is one challenge, while making it engaging is another. “This is a longer rehabilitation clinic and these kids need to be entertained. They’ve already grown up with technology. It’s no longer like our parents’ generation, or even our own. Technology, for them, is like a teleportation device, like Alice in Wonderland. They need to have fun and escape.”
Cohen recalled three specific instances from their first visit to the hospital that really confirmed her belief in the power and necessity of VR Passport.
There was one boy on a gurney who had trouble even saying his name. He was screaming and then laughing and shrieking. The sequence finished and he immediately wanted to go again.
Another girl did the virtual reality Paris experience and her mom started crying because her daughter got to see the Eiffel Tower she hadn’t been able to see in person. There was also a girl who was completely paralyzed, alone in a room, who did the Cirque du Soleil experience. When it was finished she never wanted it to end.
– Hannah Cohen, cofounder, Osmos Academy
If the joy palpable on this return visit is any indicator, VR Passport is already well on the way and heading in the right direction.
“It’s really incredible,” said Cohen. “We’re so happy. It’s not something we could be doing by ourselves, it all comes down to the community.” And this connection, between technology and community, is really what VR Passport, and Osmos Academy, is all about.