Virtual reality app adds empathy to learning at University of Oklahoma

NORMAN — A new virtual reality application at the University of Oklahoma will allow users to experience the world through aging bodies. The program is only one of several virtual reality experiences the university has to offer.

We Are Alfred, a program designed as empathy training for caregivers, gives the user the experience of macular degeneration and hearing loss using a virtual reality headset that offers a three-dimensional experience from the point of view of an elderly man named Alfred.

“Other people will be able to feel what the patient feels and feel that patient’s frustration. It is easy to say that it is sad, but to actually generate the condition gives people a step into what it actually feels like,” University of Illinois medical student Ashley Chin said.

Chin is one of many medical students who have had the opportunity to experience the We are Alfred program from Embodied Labs as empathy training, created to give medical professionals and caregivers a better idea of what patients are experiencing.

“From a med student perspective, it is easy to get caught up in the school grind and lose sight of the ultimate goal — to give care to patients. This gives us the patients’ experience versus a passive observer experience. It bridges the gap between patients and providers,” Chin said.

The experience starts with the patient’s birthday, and his family telling him they are worried about his health; the user is then taken to the doctor. At the doctor’s office the patient is asked to complete the Montreal Cognitive Assessment. The doctor ends up telling the patient that they have hearing loss, and assisting them by giving them a hearing device.

“This is an ‘aha!’ moment for learners because some of them haven’t realized that their hearing has been impaired until they can hear normally. The audio before and after receiving the hearing device mimics very closely what an actual person would hear with impairment,” Embodied Labs curriculum designer Erin Washington said.

The program then shows the doctor demonstrating the appropriate communication skills and reassuring the patient that despite the scary experience they are going through, the doctor will assist them every step of the way, Washington said.

VR work stations on campus

OU’s virtual reality program uses the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality system created to work on a personal computer. The system is one of a few on the market today that have gained popularity. It is controlled by a powerful computer that is connected to a headset and hand controls for the user to wear and hold in an empty space, transformed into another world through the headset. The program began two years ago, when the software was becoming more affordable for the public.

The university also launched Anatomy VR, allowing users to interact with a 3-D human body.

“Instead of looking at a page of a textbook, you can see the body as it exists in three-dimensions. It is easier for people to comprehend and evaluate these objects in their natural format. It tracks your body so you can literally lean in and get a closer look,” OU emerging technologies librarian Matthew Cook said.

Cook is constantly evaluating new trends in technology and looking for ways to re-purpose them in the university setting. One such trend in virtual reality technology is the ability to take a 3-D scan or image of an object and upload the object to one of the VR stations so users can then interact with the objects they are studying.

“Now architecture undergrads can walk though a building that has not been built yet, and history majors can hold something in a museum that is not accessible to them otherwise,” Cook said.

The university now has four VR work stations located in the Bizzell Memorial Library, the law library and the Innovation Hub. The work stations are also available for use by the public.

Cook said that emerging technologies in virtual reality could potentially allow teachers to have virtual classrooms in which they are able to chose atom by atom and byte by byte what the student sees — something that could change the way students attend universities.

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