Socius VR

How virtual reality can help people with autism practice social interaction

The Lightbulb asks innovators and entrepreneurs how they turned their ideas into reality. This week we talk to Socius VR’s Anzel Singh who’s working to create VR videos for people with autism to practice social interaction. 

First of all, give us your elevator pitch for Socius VR.

Socius VR is virtual reality system for people with autism to practice social interaction in a more comfortable and immersive environment. So if you want to practice situations [where you’re] making friends, going to a job interview, or any kind of social setting, you can practice it in VR so you can feel more confident and comfortable beforehand.

I understand you’ve got a couple of other people working with you on the team, can you tell me a little bit about them and what you’re all studying at university?

I’m in fourth year and it’s my final semester studying biological sciences and psychology. There are also two other co-founders: Weilian who’s getting her master’s in information systems, and Sarah who’s also studying biological sciences and psychology. I met Weilian at Summer Lab (University of Auckland’s business development programme), but I knew Sarah beforehand.

So what was it that sparked the idea for Socius VR? What was your lightbulb moment?

I guess it came up really randomly. When you do Summer Lab, you start out with an idea and you have to make a poster of it. I wanted to work in VR, but my idea initial idea was allowing you to try out different jobs. You could be a data scientist, a marketing director or a doctor so you can find out what they wanted to do in life.

The next day, Weilian saw my poster and we started talking because Weilian was working at a virtual reality store. She started talking about how she had someone with cerebral palsy come to the store and we got onto the topic of using VR to help people with disabilities. From there, we started discussing what kind of cognitive difficulties we thought we could help with and when we were doing our research, we found that difficulty with social interaction –which a lot of people with autism struggle with – was something that VR could be really useful for.

Socius VR co-founders, L-R: Sarah Mwashomah, Anzel Singh, Weilian Du (Photo: Supplied)

What was the reason for wanting to work with virtual reality in the first place?

I guess I was just really curious to work with technology that I felt like could maybe have a significance in the future. I think it came up randomly just because I had that [initial] idea – I really wanted to know what it would be like to try out different jobs and I thought VR was the closest thing to providing that. I didn’t really know about augmented reality before, but I wanted to work on a project that felt useful for the future because I think everyone’s in a rush to learn as much as they can about AI and machine learning and I just felt like virtual reality was something that was also kind of interesting.

Can you describe how the product will actually work? How will people with autism be able to practice social interaction?

So far, we’ve made a point-of-view video which is what the virtual reality video will eventually look like. We’re hoping that the content will be something people with autism will be able to use to practice and then apply to real life in the same way that psychologists use scripting methods to practice certain situations. When we were talking [to autism experts], they were telling us how when people with autism go into a new situation, they’ll often try and remember the last time they did something similar and use that information in real life. That’s when we thought: ‘What if they could practice this situation in a VR headset?’ That way, whenever they find themselves in a situation like meeting someone for the first time, they can be like, ‘Hey, I did this in VR!’ We thought this would allow them to have more options on the best way to interact if they ever felt anxiety about the situation. It hasn’t been completely tested yet because we’re still in the early stages, but that’s what we’re hoping for. Something that’s applicable.

So rather than focusing on gamification, it’s mostly focused on simulation.

Exactly. It’s definitely something that’s supposed to help people at least experience something similar before they do it in real life, especially if they’re uncomfortable doing it for the first time. We’ve heard about how it can be scary going to psychology sessions and having to go into group situations. We’ve also heard that a lot of people with autism tend to like technology, especially younger people, so it might be easier for them to practice using that method.

You said it was still in its early stages. Have you had a chance to test it out with people who do have autism yet?

No, not yet. We’ve talked about it with people with autism, but we haven’t shown the video to anyone with autism. [At this point], we’re interested in getting as much useful information as possible. We’re talking to Autism New Zealand, Altogether Autism, and autism specialists/psychologists. Right now, I think we’re in the stages of figuring out what would be the best simulation and to validate it with people with autism as soon as we can (hopefully, next month).

Example of what a job interview simulation might look like (Photo: Supplied)

Did you know much about autism before Socius VR?

I’d say it’s been quite a new experience, learning about autism and virtual reality at the same time. We really got most of our information from organisations like Altogether Autism who have given us so much advice.

As soon as we started the project, we started doing heavy research and going to events that the university was holding during Brain Awareness week. We tried to build as much expertise as we could, as generally as we could. But yeah, we didn’t really know anything at the start.

What’s been your biggest challenge so far?

I think the hardest thing was understanding what the best video to use would be and figuring out if that video could actually help people with autism. I think that’s what the fear was – what if it won’t even help anybody?

I think when we went to Autism New Zealand, we asked them questions like: ‘Do you even think this could work? How practical is it? And also, if we’re going to make a simulation, will this simulation good?’ One of the things we included [from talking to Autism New Zealand] was an understanding that sometimes, people with autism can take things very literally. So we included literal meanings in the video. So when the hiring manager says “take a seat”, we explained in the video that it means to sit down. And when the manager says “keep in touch”, we added something to explain what “keep in touch” meant.

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I think we’re just at that stage of making sure that everything is perfect for someone with autism. We’ve made the video, but it needs to be the perfect speed – it needs to be slower and it needs to be easy to pause and play. It’s difficult because autism is a spectrum [and we have to make] sure we can make something that’s accessible to everyone.

What’s next for you guys?

The first VR video we want to have is the job interview video. We know there are videos out there for people with autism in VR, but they’re not really real people – they’re more graphic and animated. What we’re imagining is a video with real people, simulating a real job and is high quality. We eventually want to have an app that people can watch these videos on, and then have different modules and levels for different situations.

We want to really expand on as many videos as possible after we make the first one [which we’re hoping will come] at the end of this year.


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