Researchers Build VR Autism Experience To Build Empathy

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Researchers from the University of Malta are working to replicate the experience of being an autistic child in VR, in an attempt to provide educators deeper understanding from a first-hand perspective.  Of course, as noted by one researcher on the project, Dr. Vanessa Camilleri, there’s really no way to mimic every part of the experience with VR. That’s leaving alone the impossibility of trying to recreate the experience of the many expressions of autism across its spectrum. However, the goal here is not to help teachers learn to treat autistic students differently. Instead, it is to use the technology to provide a small taste of the experience in order to assist with the development of empathy. To accomplish that, the application places educators in the shoes of a simulated autistic child in a school environment. In the VR app, environmental stimuli don’t always come through clearly and a sense of distress is generated using visual effects.

It goes without saying that developing a deeper sense of empathy will almost certainly result in an adjustment of behavior on the part of educators. Bearing that in mind, VR should be able to make that a more natural and genuine development which might otherwise have been impossible. To that end, the Autism app itself has already been mostly completed and there’s even a video – included below – which gives a preview of the project. The next step for the team behind it is trying to move it to one of the mainstream platforms so that it can reach educators. As of this writing, they have their eyes set on Samsung’s Gear VR headset but there’s no official timeline for when the app might launch or how much, if anything, it will cost.

In the meantime, the team doesn’t plan on stopping with educators either. Depending on how well this first application is received, the next logical step will be to approach the issue in a way that will help others. Specifically, Dr. Camilleri’s goal is to move on from here to generate a similar experience specially created for parents and other family members. Obviously that will diverge from the current application in terms of the types of interactions and locales. So it could be a long wait before those other experiences are ready.