Students will soon be able to immerse themselves in a variety of virtual environments as part of a research project underway in the College of Education at Tennessee Tech University.
The Oculus Rift takes students into a 3D virtual reality world, enabling simulations for students that may not be possible in real life. Dr. Jason Beach, an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology, developed the project to help students with Autism practice interacting with everyday scenarios that most people take for granted. He explains, “ Students will have the ability to develop social skills and important life skills in a safe virtual environment. The environment can simulate situations that students will face on a day-to-day basis. Because it’s a simulated virtual environment, the interactions can be changed in real time to reciprocate student’s initiations of conversation and interaction. Each of the students will be able to work on skills specifically designed for them.”
Students on the Autism spectrum have a wide range of social, language, and academic abilities and interests. This makes programming for them very difficult because of the diversity of needs. In general, social situations are difficult because there are so many factors involved including facial cues, tone of voice, figurative language, and body language. Many students with Autism struggle with translating these social cues in real people. Before being faced with real people and real situations, they will have the opportunity to practice with virtual people in virtual situations. What they will probably not realize is that the digital person they are interacting with is a real person on the other side of a computer! With the Oculus Rift, students will be able to immerse themselves in situations that are motivating to them to practice skills like conversation, initiating play, and common classroom skills within the safe environment of the virtual world.
Dr. Jeremy Wendt, Chair of Curriculum and Instruction and Associate Professor, explains that the ability to immerse students in a foreign culture could be a great experience for those who may not be fortunate enough to travel the world. Through monitored interactions, the students could have virtual interactions and conversations with other students around the world. The scenario could be much like a PenPal, but in a completely 3D interactive environment. The College of Education at Tennessee Tech University supports and encourages forward-thinking research into future technologies that may have an impact in PreK-16 education. Dr. Beach has also applied for grant funding that would develop a lab for immersive technologies for education in Bartoo Hall. The technology was developed and produced in a limited number through a KickStarter project and is being used in gaming, simulations, military, pilot-training and industry applications. More info about the project can be found at http://www.oculusvr.com/.