This is a wiki site that gives information on using virtual reality headsets with pupils with special needs. It is part of a larger site looking at using emerging gesture based technology with special needs pupils. Click here to go to the main Gesture Technology page. This site is currently run by Anthony Rhys who teaches at Trinity Fields School in Ystrad Mynach, Caerphilly (Wales, UK).
What is Virtual Reality?
Virtual Reality (VR)- is using technology to create an immersive world or experience. This site gives a detailed overview of the whole general topic. We've been using the Oculus Rift VR Dev2 headset which runs with a PC since January 2015. With the headset on you can 'see' the other world all around you as you move your head.
What can it be used for in with special needs pupils?
This is up for debate and imagination at the moment- it's very early days with VR in the SEN environment. As far as I am aware only Mathieu Marunczyn in Australia has used it in an SEN environment- see his great blog here.
See this blog post I wrote for some initial thoughts about considerations and ideas for using VR in special needs classes.
To give one case study- one of our PMLD pupils used it and the response was amazing. We know she loves flashing light visual stimulation from previous work so she used the fractal part of a program. The headset here is being used as a visual sensory experience.
The response right from the start was instant smiling, as soon as the headset went on, with happy vocalising and even more smiles mixed in with intense concentration. See the images below.
When it was taken off her eyes after about twenty seconds of use, she tracked it moving away, stared at it and then opened her mouth as it got closer to her face again- which is her way of showing anticipation.
An instant engaging visual sensory experience right in the middle of the classroom that she absolutely loved! She was using the Celestial Song program which is described here- on the 'fractal tunnel' part of it.
She also absolutely loves the Visir music visualiser- usually on breaks and choice time she likes to have the iPad playing music with a visualiser on it- this is one step up visually for her and she laughs, smiles and concentrates on the visuals in rotation! See the top photo for evidence of this. Of course this is 'just' improving the visual experience for her but it's early days and I would like to try her on something where she has to look in certain directions to get the visual stimulus.
It has also been used with a teenage girl with an Aspergers diagnosis and she was amazed with it at first, looking round, reaching out and commenting. Then she asked what else I had for it and while on an Island exploration program she took to the mouse pad control to move her view point and directional keys really easily. She also loved the rollercoaster programs, I kept asking her if her stomach felt okay (because mine goes into knots on them!) but she said she felt fine all the way through. I encouraged breaks in between each program as we chose the next one to use. In the same way one of our more able boys has been on it a few times- most recently with the Xbox controller- and he thinks it is awesome- a quote was 'Well, I never thought I'd see this!' as he flew around in a Star Wars space battle. He also reported no sickness or dizziness.
What is the Oculus Rift?
The Oculus Rift came out in 2014 as a Development2 kit- which means it is not 'available in the shops' and there's not much commercial software for it yet- it's for programmers to try out and make content for. But- it is very close to the finished product and there are many examples of programs out already. It costs about £350 and you can get it from the Oculus main website. The proper consumer version is out in April 2016.
Basically it is a headset plugged into your computer that you wear over your eyes. Inside are two screens- one for each eye and these combine to give the impression that you can 'see' another world- a 'Virtual Reality'. Another camera attached to the computer then watches how your head is moving so you can look around this world and it moves accordingly- you can look around objects, under tables and also 'walk' forward- usually by tilting the head or using the keyboard or a controller.
This is what the PC screen looks like- one oval for each 'eye' inside the Oculus- but with the headset on it looks like the real world.
Here is the headset and the camera attachments.
This video will take you through the install process and give you an idea of what to do. It works best on a new PC- the better the specification the better.
It's not for the total beginner but it's not all that advanced either- it's in development stage- so if you want it easy then wait for the commercial version to come out in April, this will cost $599.00 but consider also the computer to run it- it needs to be a high spec computer costing around £1,300.00
The Oculus Rift Dev Kit is the only one you can really get your hands on now but The HTC Vive headset, is coming out Spring 2016, as is the Playstation VR headset. There are also ones like Google Cardboard that use a mobile phone to play the content- so much easier and cheaper but not a total immersive environment.
These run like any other programs but are especially written for the Oculus Rift. There are loads of free ones to download on the Oculus VR website, some are better than others and some run only in extended mode- which is tricky to set up- so all of these programs should work straight away in what's called 'Direct Mode' which means one click and it appears in the headset ready to play. I've been through pretty much ALL of them and the ones on the pages below are the best for our pupils.
There seems to be three main types of use to us in an SEN environment- click for reviews of them:
Basically you are 'taken on a journey' but where you look is up to you.
Click here for examples of passive experiences suitable for school.
Typically you are walking or flying around a set environment- like a city, desert or a house.
Click here for examples of active experiences suitable for school.
The task could be anything- from parking a car to collecting items to reaching checkpoint right up to complex arcade games. This aspect would include simulations of real-life situations where the pupil has to achieve a set goal.
When 'moving pictures' were invented that was a pretty big deal, as was the development of cinema and currently YouTube is all pervasive in lots of childrens and adults lives.
VR takes this one giant step further- it's immersive video and you experience things as if you are there. It has massive implications for education in general.
In SEN education this is also true though perhaps more so as lots of our learners need concrete learning experiences. A VR experience is very visual and these experiences don't always require language to 'explain' them.
For example we can describe a dinosaur using language as 'big, massive, huge, gigantic', or via numbers as '23m high' or by comparison 'as being as big as a house'.
We can show pictures of it, or video of it to indicate how large it is:
Which is all well and good but now we can also get a pupil to stand in front of one, walk around it and have to crane their neck up to see it. That has eliminated the need for language, measurements, comparisons, diagrams and scales- you know it's massive because it's roaring right above you!
Apart from the pure sensory visual stimulation at the start of this page we can also give our pupils experiences of places and experiences ranging from the exotic to the everyday. For a lot of our pupils it might be the only way they will ever experience a rollercoaster, a hot air balloon ride or diving underwater. I know VR isn't obviously exactly the same as the real thing but it's better than not experiencing these things at all.
In the future there will be more ways of giving pupils more complex 'virtual learning' environments relating to social skills and dangers as well (e.g. a busy shop, crossing the road).
Virtual reality is not going to go away- it's only going to get better.
I obviously would not recommend using it with anyone who has photosensitive epilepsy- or whose seizures are known to be triggered by flashing lights. Generally though being in a sensory room with flashing light stimulation would replicate the VR experience in this sense- so if pupils are fine experiencing that then they will be fine with short experiences on the headset. We are using the headset with our older pupils as well. I would also recommend being wary of using it with anyone with a stent or other electrical implants just to be cautious. We are also using it for short bursts only with plenty of warning and approaching the eyes slowly to allow pupils to anticipate the experience- basically following the same etiquette and respect that we would in our other dealings with our pupils- and letting them guide us as to if they are enjoying the experience or not.
If you want pupils to start moving around the virtual worlds it's best to get a gaming controller as trying to press keys on the keyboard when you can't see them is really tricky and limits your movement and experience. With a wired Xbox gaming controller you can download a free PC program from Microsoft that lets it control your PC- most of the Oculus programs allow Xbox controller input. If the Xbox controller is wireless then you'll have to buy a little wireless box that attaches to your PC so it can talk to the controller- about £10 from Amazon. The full version next year has nifty controllers that will also replicate your hands on the headset screen (something that can be done with a Leap motion and Oculus Rift at the moment- it is amazing.)
About 40 pupils have tried it out now on various experiences, only a few wouldn't wear the headset as they were a bit nervous, the rest didn't show or report any adverse reactions.
We recently asked a class what they though of the Oculus- here's some of their comments that were written down from their verbal comments by the teacher, both pupils are at a P7-NC1 level:
This boy keeps asking when the 'goggles after school club' is going to start (we often run ICT after school clubs).
This girl's last comments were lovely, especially the last one as she uses a wheelchair.
To end with here is a picture of Richard Hirstwood having a go on the Oculus at a PLC meeting. When you're on it you never know who is taking photographs of you......
Trinity Fields School