How High School Students Are Using VR to Help People With Autism

Samsung U.S. Newsroom
Samsung U.S. Newsroom / Samsung U.S. Newsroom

A new virtual reality app developed by high school students at Michigan's Kent Career Tech Center is designed to work a little differently than most VR experiences. Created to help people with autism practice social interactions, the still-unnamed app eases users into the virtual reality experience at their own pace, instead of bombarding them with immersive sounds and visuals as soon as they slip on the headset.

Users start out with multiple options designed to help them feel comfortable. First, they can choose to enter a comic strip where they can read static panels, rather than immediately being thrown into an interactive scene. Then, once they've grown comfortable with that, they can move on to view an animated version of the situation. The final option takes full advantage of the virtual reality technology, placing them directly in the story.

The VR app was one of 10 student-led projects pitched at the final round of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest in New York City on April 8. Every year, Samsung challenges teams of students grades six through 12 to use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) to tackle issues facing their own communities and beyond. The program "is a platform for students to take something that's meaningful to them and create the change they aspire to see in the world," Ann Woo, Samsung's senior director of corporate citizenship, tells Mental Floss.

For their project, the students at Kent Career Tech Center chose to focus on an issue they could observe firsthand at their own school. To develop their software, they collaborated with a behavioral expert and teachers familiar autism spectrum disorder as well as a local tech company. At each step of the way, Kent students with autism were able to test the app and provide feedback to the team.

"We want to cover the entire spectrum of autism," Ashton Charron, one of the app's creators, tells Mental Floss. "We wanted to create a highly interactive version, but we also wanted to create versions that were slightly less overwhelming. We wanted to make it very easy to step into.”

The final product gives users a chance to test out social experiences in a comfortable, controlled environment. "You’ll be in a scenario where you’re in a class sitting down. You want to raise your hand and ask a question, but you don’t really know how to or that you need to," Donovan Fletcher, one of the students who presented the project, says. "Practicing these situations in advance allows people to become more confident, comfortable, and productive."

That VR experience isn't limited to users on the autism spectrum. Kent student Astron Charron says trying out the software could be beneficial to anyone. "People who don’t have autism can plug into the VR and understand a little bit more of what it’s like for people who do," she says. "It gives everybody on the outside a chance to look in and see through another person's eyes."

Other ideas that made it to the final round of Samsung's competition include football helmets that detect concussions, sensors that deploy water barriers during floods, and energy-efficient window shades that cool schools without AC. While Kent's app wasn't among the three winners to earn $150,000 in Samsung products for their school, the students are still optimistic about the product's potential. "The future of this thing is huge," Ashton says.