At the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the exhibits was a robotic suit that lets users experience how it feels to have cataracts, tinnitus, a slower gait and other physical annoyances that often come with old age. A deaf graduate student at MIT’s Living Mobile Lab created a virtual reality simulator called Amphibian that not only recreates the experience of scuba diving but also mimics deafness.
A Chicago startup called Embodied Labs is already applying its VR innovation to health education. The company developed a video and VR experience in which participants become a 74-year-old man named Alfred. The video takes them through seven minutes and six scenes, beginning with a birthday where their simulated blurred vision and fuzzy hearing causes them to knock over a glass of wine and be confused about what people around them are saying. The final scene has them going with family members the doctor’s office to take a cognition test.
“We created that video by working with medical educators at the University of Illinois at Chicago to look at their geriatric education curriculum and identify learning goals that we could put into the Alfred experience,” says co-founder Carrie Shaw, a medical illustrator with a master’s degree in biomedical visualization from UIC. Shaw became a caregiver at age 19, when her mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s.
The UIC College of Medicine plans to use the technology in some of its classes, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison will use it in an undergraduate course on aging. Embodied Labs is working on another agreement with Wake Forest University, which is considering using the Alfred video in its geriatrics and internal medicine curricula.
Applying a concept called “embodied learning,” the video developers used an Oculus Rift headset and a Leap Motion controller to give participants the feeling that their own arm movements are connected to the simulated environment.
“Embodied learning has to do with learning by movement: You’re engaging the motor system and the sensory system,” Shaw says. She adds that studies exploring the theory of embodied cognition suggest that these kinds of learning experiences can help reduce biases and stereotypes.
According to Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, one of the earliest VR empathy experiences was designed by photographer and former psychotherapist Rita Addison. Her goal was to simulate her own experience of brain injury and changes in cognitive function as the result of a 1992 car accident. The system was designed to effect several sensations, including “having visual impairment, having sounds and lights overwhelming you because you couldn’t focus on things,” Rizzo says.
Of course, the idea of generating empathy by trying on another’s experiences and perspectives has been around since long before the arrival of VR technology.
“I can remember when I was in graduate school and we use to have ‘Disability Day,'” Rizzo says. “For one day people would sign up and commit to wearing a blindfold all day, or wearing earmuffs that impaired your hearing, or using a wheelchair all day.”
Whether the teaching tool is high-tech or low-tech, empathy training can provide a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be old and sick.
“It just happens to be that virtual reality is such an awesome medium to transport yourself into somebody else’s shoes,” Shaw says.