Making Reality Easier Using Virtual Reality Part 2

Podcast Episode 56  What might be the future uses of virtual reality, and how do we need to manage this to stop potential dependence on technology? These are the main themes of this episode.

In part 2 of this interview Dr. Nigel Newbutt, who is researching the uses of virtual reality and virtual worlds, talks about what the future uses of virtual reality might be and how it could be used to help young people with additional needs live more independent lives. He also addresses some of the concerns that have been raised about the use of these types of technologies.

The future uses of virtual reality are exciting but, as Nigel cautions, we need to remember that it is simply another tool. We will need to make sure we monitor its actual effectiveness to ensure it has the desired impact of helping our young people develop the skills which will enable them to live more independent lives.

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Podcast Transcript

DEBRA: This is part two of this episode so if you haven’t listened/read part one yet, it would be a good idea to do that before listening to this episode as we do refer back to what we talked about in part one. This week, it’s about the future of virtual reality and also talking about some of the issues around using this sort of technology because we all worry a little bit about our young people’s desire to spend so much time on their devices.

I started by asking Nigel what the future might look like in terms of the uses of virtual reality. From a personal viewpoint I was particularly interested in how virtual reality could be applied around employability, but from what Nigel says, there is still some time to wait and research to be done before this kind of technology becomes readily available in terms of applications around employability.

I can really see the benefits that this would bring to my daughter in having the ability to practice before an interview using virtual reality, also being able to work through a job before she went live, so to speak. But of course, it needs to be tested to make sure that this is having an impact because it’s no use if it is a great game for her but isn’t actually helping her progress in terms of employability.

Nigel also talks about another interesting use of virtual reality to help young people to calm down when for example they get overwhelmed or very stressed. This is something I can see being quite useful for my daughter. Obviously, this wouldn’t work every time but as Nigel says these are all tools which we can use when and where we need them.

Nigel also addresses some of the concerns around the use of this type of technology in terms of how to use this technology safely, how long is too long and also health and safety issues Nigel has also written a guide for the National Autistic Society in the UK and a link to that is in the shownotes.

DEBRA: I’m not expecting you to tell me what future will be like but where do you see this sort of technology going?

NIGEL: So VR and head-mounted display work that we’ve been doing recently were first experimented with in 1995 -1996 so about 20 years ago. And there’s a big gap between then and now with not much work being done because of the affordability of the devices and size of the devices and the fact they were confined to universities and research labs. But now these devices are quite affordable, they’re quite small, they’re quite portable and they’re easy to operate so you don’t need to be a specialist to use them. I think as this field moves forward, these devices would become more accessible, smaller, cheaper, easier to use.

So for me, the hardware is becoming much more accessible to school and parents and children to actually have in their home and in the schools. But coupled with that is the content and the content is the big question at the moment, that’s the big gap, I think, at the moment. That we don’t have enough content, we don’t have enough good content. What we don’t have are any sort of programs, educational programs around using this content. So how much should you use this content, when should you use this content, how long should you use this content for. So there are all those sorts of questions, so for me, the field is in a position where there’s a lot of investment in VR, there’s a lot of talk about using it with a range of different groups. But if we were to move forward 5 years, I would like to think that these devices will be more prevalent so they’ll be more available in schools, in homes, and in different centers, for example. And that the content will be a lot more targeted and specific. And that’s where we need to move towards I think in the next 5 years.

DEBRA: The employability stuff is really interesting when you said about interviews and my daughter is 17 now, so clearly I’m starting to think about things like that, to be able to go through the process, through a headset, and then go into their interview would make such a difference, I think.

NIGEL: I think you’re right but I think we do need to test that, we need to identify is there something for them and so what is it? Because if there’s something useful, we need to find those things out to then be able to talk about that stuff and get out there into the hands of the people who could potentially benefit.

A VR headset you can get cardboard, very low tech head-mounted display called a Google cardboard and it’s just a cardboard device and you insert a smartphone into that, with a ready-made display which can do the things that we’re talking about. They can go through the job interview, they can wander through Google Earth, they can wander through the streets, they can go visit somewhere. That’s what we used with the museum experience to tour the museum It can be as cheap as that.
We’ve been asking questions around what students prefer, actually, in terms of these types of devices which has highlighted some interesting results, actually. At the end of the day, these are young kids, young people – autistic or not- they are using this technology. This is how they’re operating now. This is where the field of education and other things are going so it’s only right to use it.

DEBRA: Our young people, what they need to often do is overlearn and this is a really good way of doing that; practicing over and over again how they go through something.

NIGEL: Exactly. It’s the practicing, it’s the rehearsal. They can get things wrong without real-world consequences, you know, some of the key draws, as you said, for the young people to engage with this technology.

DEBRA: And also I quite like this scenario idea around with happens if I say this or what happens if I say that. You may never come across that situation but at least you’d be prepared because it would have happened in your virtual world.

NIGEL: Exactly. I think, being able to experience what a slightly angry sort of response something might be. That rehearsal, when you’re in the real world, you might suddenly think, I remember that so maybe I’ll take the conversation this way. This is what we’re looking to find out next.

DEBRA: This could really change the way for a lot of people, including my daughter that they react to situations. A lot of social situations are way too stressing and for her to be able to try it out through VR would really help.

NIGEL: One of the things we found when we asked the students what they might use or like right to use VR for, one of the things was for calming and meditation. So they found it a very relaxing space in itself. So if they’re relaxed, that cognitive pressure is reduced and that opens up lot of opportunities for them to engage with something and that’s what some of these technologies can do. It can just provide that sort of environment where they think Well that isn’t real but it’s real enough that I can understand what I’m doing and what I need to do, but it’s not real and that’s why I feel much more relaxed.”

So it could be used as a way of bringing people down from a hyperactive state potentially which the schools are looking to use it for this as well. There’s a lot of apps for meditative sort of purposes and I could imagine visuals mixed with music would give somebody a very relaxing space. So a lot of special needs schools would have a calm space where people can decompress, this could be quite an efficient way to potentially do that. That’s another thing about this technology, I think, it can be inexpensive and therefore instead of having lots of therapists or lots of teachers or lots of spaces to do this it could be a potentially a mobile way of achieving certain things which could alleviate some of the pressures, financially. This sort of technology can fill a gap as it were

I think VR is here to stay now. We know that it’s potentially going to become more socially facing and that people will be talking to one another across the world using VR. I think that can only benefit autistic people because we know that autistic people are drawn to social media because it enables them to communicate more freely and more openly and VR’s going to plug into that. I think there’s research to be done around so as it moves forward, it will just become more prevalent, more affordable and more available in the lives of people who can benefit from it.

I’m very keen that this stuff gets into the hands of the people who can potentially use it to their benefit. So that’s why I work in schools and with schools, I don’t work in the university setting I take the technology out there to identify what the barriers are, what the contextual barriers might be, what the concerns from teachers might be. Working like that you’re going to move this field forward a lot more quickly and provide benefits to the people using it.

DEBRA: What have been some of the concerns people have raised? Clearly, one of the things that parents worry about is their children spending too much time on social media.

NIGEL: Often the concern around screen time and how long somebody might spend, and again we know that some autistic people can present with compulsive and obsessive behaviors in some cases, and so being on technology for too long or overusing it can be a concern for parents.

But I think that’s another reason I work closely with schools because I feel that’s an example of a space where we can control access to technology including how long. But we have experienced when children have used it, they want to keep using it and they want to come back to using it. They get excited about seeing me when I’m in the school and they think we know what’s going to happen here. So I think it’s about putting things in place that can help manage and stage that. That said, we haven’t encountered any major problems so far.

Other concerns have been about the health and safety of using it and how long is too long, what are some of the concerns around things like if you put the device in your head for a while, they don’t weigh much but they do weigh a bit and the issue of how that might affect your vision, the focus of your eyes. But again, there’s very limited data and evidence to support the concerns around that.

Teachers have expressed mainly practical issues around their ability to use this technology so their technical ability to engage with the technology as well as the costs of bringing this technology into schools, that’s been a barrier that they’ve talked about. Also things around very young users, so we worked with young people as young as 6 and we were really careful about how we worked with them, making sure they sat down when they used the technology because there were some health and safety issues around balance. We found some people when they did try to stand lost balance.

I’ve produced something for the National Autistic Society – a guide to using VR and some of the health and safety implications around that. That certainly was one of the pieces of advice that we moved towards that anybody younger than 12 should be sat down when they’re using this technology or if they’re going to stand up, be staged and be very careful around doing that.

So I think those are messages are very important. But on the whole, it’s been a very positive experience from both users and parents. We have had parents writing to us to say their child had such an energy around using this technology and found it so useful. I think we’re entering an area where we are not quite so sure about how to answer some of those questions.

DEBRA: I guess there’s a fine line isn’t there between someone using the technology to move forward in terms of say employability and become dependent on it?

NIGEL: Certainly and there is a fine line. I have young children, myself you see how much technology is a part of their lives. But that said, I think technology is just a part of learning development, it’s a part of young people’s lives, it’s like a book for them, it’s like a bike, it’s like a swing, it’s like a range of different things that a young person will do. Technology is a part of that and like ensuring they aren’t cycling on a bike circle for hours and hours the same thing would apply to their use of technology. Just managing that as a parent or as a teacher is part of what we need to do. I think technology is just part of that broader thing, that broader sort of educational context. But you’re right, there’s a fine line thinking about the educational outcomes or the professional outcomes of this technology and the playful outcomes and the use of play within this context.

DEBRA: Obviously, a lot of young people with additional needs love things like Minecraft because it does enable them to do what other people do and not have the pressure of being with other people.

NIGEL: It also allows them to just be another person in Minecraft. They don’t have to identify as autistic; somebody in a wheelchair doesn’t have to identify as being in a wheelchair in Minecraft if that’s how they want to be and how they want to play. We have feedback from people with different disabilities and conditions where they say they can be who they want to be and they can engage with their peers on a like for like basis and engage on their terms in their time.

That’s what’s really appealing about this technology, I think, as opposed to maybe when they’re at school and they’re told that they’re this or they are in a special setting so they are obviously this. Technology does give them a bit more freedom at least that’s the feedback we’ve heard. In some cases, we see the technology give a voice to people who maybe can’t communicate in traditional formats and in traditional ways. The technology allows them to do that and enables them to have a voice, it enables them to engage with their peer groups on par with their peer groups.

So I think it can be an empowering thing actually, the range of social media, Minecraft, Virtual World, Virtual Reality technologies. That’s the powerful potential of this line of enquiry that we’re working on. VR or virtual worlds or Minecraft or iPads or whatever the technology is it’s just another tool in the toolsets for teachers and parents. It’s just another thing that can provide a powerful mode of communication and interaction for a range of people. For autistic people the benefit that it brings to them potentially to control things at their own pace on their own terms is a real draw to using this technology. It’s such an interesting area of research practice and pervasive media that’s going to become more and more prevalent.

DEBRA: Thank you very much for your time, Nigel.

NIGEL: You’re welcome.

DEBRA: Key takeaways? This technology is a tool. It needs to be used in a controlled way to ensure that we are getting the best from it. It’s important to measure whether or not the technology is actually helping us achieve the outcomes that we want.

Guide To Using Virtual Reality

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