When you think of virtual reality, you probably think of video games, the kind in which you wear goggles that immerse you in a fantasy world. Students at South Miami High School have taken that concept and turned it into a way to help kids on the autism spectrum.
“So this software that we’re developing is gonna put students that have autism in certain situations that they may encounter in the real world,” said Rudy Diaz, the multimedia teacher at the school.
They call it Social VR, and it takes users through different scenarios, such as choosing items that are appropriate to bring to school, identifying facial expressions, and shopping at a supermarket. Students in the multimedia program designed it, they coded it, and they’re working to perfect it.
“Anything that you can imagine in your head, you can create it inside the program,” said Luis Sotolongo, a junior at South Miami High. “We’re just a group of kids, we didn’t know we could do this stuff and now we figured it out and we can actually do something to help people.”
They’ve come up with an interesting way to bridge the virtual world with the real world: they test the student’s brain waves to see how the VR system impacts the user.
A device attached to the user’s skull measures activity in certain parts of the brain which correlate to things like focus, stress, and engagement, both before and during the person’s VR session.
“I’ve seen a case where it was like really low levels and then after VR it was like, super high, so that’s like telling us as a research group, it’s helping them,” said Thelma Valladares, a senior at the school.
The students have a built-in test subject in Ryan Cozier, a classmate who is on the autism spectrum. We watched him try the Social VR for the first time.
“I felt like I was in a different dimension and I felt like I was daydreaming at night,” Ryan said. “It was very cool.”
So cool that they’re planning on sharing their system with other schools, with special education programs, hoping to provide a social skills playbook for kids with autism.