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Power of design & technology: VR for kids with disabilities

This time last year, as part of the semester-long project for my part-time online master study of HCI at Iowa State University for the Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds and Applications class, I got to learn about VR Kids. They are a non-profit local organization in Las Vegas dedicated to providing children with special needs free access to therapeutic virtual reality. After visiting their website at www.vrkids.org, I loved their mission and immediately reached out to the founder. After our first discussion in person, I voluntarily felt like I wanted to be a part of this organization to help out the unfortunate kids through the application of virtual reality. Therefore, with permission from our mechanical engineering professor Judy Vance, instead of doing an independent project which I had originally planned for, I decided to volunteer for VR Kids. 

Since founded earlier last year, the small team of five members from different backgrounds lead by senior engineer & founder RJ Sampson have learned to build VR together and they successfully built their first VR animation for the Oculus Rift a few months back. This very first 9-minute-long animation illustrates the fun journey of Teddy the bear. 

Screenshot from VR Kids' very first VR animation

Screenshot from VR Kids' very first VR animation

The team has visited a few households in Las Vegas neighborhoods and set up the Oculus Rift DK2 for the kids with different levels of disabilities to experience the animation. The result was outstanding. The kids loved it and their parents were thrilled. To continue the early success, since this past September, VR Kids team started working on the second animation with Teddy the bear continuing his journey in a magical world. This was also right about the time where I reached out to RJ to help with this new animation.

Understanding the class project requirement, I had a discussion with RJ on what my tasks should be so that I could learn something new about virtual reality. With the approval from Professor Vance, I had three main tasks to complete.

First and most importantly, I needed to learn the 3D software Blender from scratch to create a fully animated dolphin character – which is one of the main characters in this VR Kids’ second animation. This primary task consisted of meshing, texture mapping, rigging & action creating for the dolphin character.

Screenshots from my dolphin rendering in Blender

Screenshots from my dolphin rendering in Blender

Once the dolphin animation was fully finished (after several refinement versions), I worked directly with RJ to import the Blender file into Unreal Engine where he had the environment set up and co-direct how the dolphin should move around in the ocean – which is a short scene of the entire animation that VR Kids produce, due to semester length constraint).

Screenshot of the Unreal Engine environment where RJ & I worked on storyboarding & effects 

Screenshot of the Unreal Engine environment where RJ & I worked on storyboarding & effects 

Another task I got to do weekly was to brainstorm with the team to refine storyline, provide feedbacks on visual aspect and extensively discuss about ways to improve the VR experience. This includes avoiding motion sickness and sudden factors of fear as our target audience is children. Sometimes we had to discard certain ideas because it might have triggered unpleasant experience for the kids.

The final result which was shown in a 90-second clip contains a fully animated dolphin (tail-flapping, mouth-talking at one point) swimming freely in an ocean environment. This scene will be a part of the entire animation that VR Kids are working on. As shown in the demo, I was able to immerse into the virtual environment where the dolphins are swimming using the Oculus Rift.

Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JWv5TQ9FNY

For first-time users in 3D animation, Blender is quite a complicated, yet powerful software. Instead of doing multiple simple objects, I spent time and refined one complex object - the dolphin. As a result, I was able to learn and understand the basics of Blender: skinning, texture mapping, rigging, action creating and many command shortcuts. Besides gaining this valuable knowledge, I was very happy with this project for that I was able to contribute a small part to helping kids with different levels of disabilities through the use of virtual reality in the local community. 

This year, VR Kids has successfully grown their teams and partnered with several major hospitals in Las Vegas to bring the VR experience to kids recovering from surgery. You can read one of the stories here

That is the power of design & technology.