Why This Startup Is Banking on VR to Build Empathy

Virtual Reality

Why This Startup Is Banking on VR to Build Empathy

from Amazon Web Services (AWS)

By Michael Niehoff     Jan 19, 2021

Why This Startup Is Banking on VR to Build Empathy

This article is part of the collection: The Past, Present and Future of Edtech.

Virtual reality (VR) technology is poised to impact many aspects of modern life including education. Early implications are that VR has the potential to enhance and optimize collaboration between teachers and students—in both remote and classroom-based environments. Early studies, such as ones from international researcher Richard Van Hooijdonk, show that virtual and augmented reality tools can increase student engagement and motivation while increasing knowledge construction. Izzy Ngo and VERE360 are positioning themselves to be the go-to virtual reality resource for education. Ngo recently spoke with EdSurge about their work with VR and education.

EdSurge: Tell us about the early days of VERE360. What was the driving force for you and your team to adopt VR?

Ngo: The original idea for the company was born in 2018 out of the UNLEASH movement, an innovation lab for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The initial idea was to use VR as a tool to develop empathy. The first prototype was a VR simulation of the experience of Syrian refugees coming to Germany. The goal was to use this VR simulation with German high school students so that they could better understand the experiences of their new Syrian classmates. We wanted them to better empathize with them so as to ease cultural clashes and facilitate integration.

When the project came to Singapore, we continued to explore the use of VR for empathy. We realized that we needed to pivot to a topic that was more strongly felt amongst Singaporeans. So we decided to focus on mental health issues. We began to get requests for VR content and found that VR was a very good tool for empathy development because of its ability to increase engagement.

We were already passionate about education. It now made perfect sense to bring VR to schools in order to reach and impact young people. From all of our work with other clients, we were already sitting on a large repository of content that had educational value that only required the right platform and people to disseminate it.

Describe to us how a typical instructional session would work on your VR for Schools platform.

We believe that education is an inherently social process and that technology should aim to highlight the best parts of education. This is the ethos that we bring into the development of all of our content. We develop VR simulations and other immersive content that should be used by the teacher during the lessons they conduct.

Typically, teachers will use our platform along with their instructional content. They would upload their slides, then drag-and-drop immersive content from our library such as 3D models or VR simulations. Then, those would be embedded within the slides as separate slides so that the teacher can easily move back and forth between their teaching materials and our immersive content. Also, there is absolutely no need for additional equipment to use our content as we build entirely for mobile VR. We make our content so people only need a mobile phone or a laptop—no extra hardware, no fuss. We are trying to bring experiential learning online in a way that is affordable, scalable and teacher-friendly.

What differences do you see in students as they learn material using VR as opposed to more traditional methods?

Early on, we conducted a study with Yale-NUS College's Psychology Department that showed that our content helped increase engagement amongst students by 25%. Engagement is defined here as students’ attention, retention and a deeper understanding of a concept. Over the years, we have seen this increase in engagement with all the students who have used our VR content. Not only are students able to engage in audio, visual and kinesthetic learning, they are given the opportunity to engage in first-person perspective-taking, which is essential to experiential learning activities. For topics such as history or SEL, a first-person perspective allows students to see life through the eyes of others and experience things they would otherwise never have known.

Can you remember a moment when you knew VERE360 was really working?

Our first long-term partnership with a school here in Singapore was with a private international school here called The Grange Institute. They challenged us to build content for their curriculum and then pilot it with their students and teachers. The first time we created anything for them was when we developed a 360 experience on the water cycle.

Students aged 7-8 put on a headset and lived their life as Winnie the Water Droplet going through the water cycle. Being new at the time, we were very nervous about the students’ feedback. On the day we used it with a small group of students for the first time, they put on headsets and we heard 15-20 minutes of “wow this is so cool!” They shouted out the phrases like “that’s evaporation” or “that’s condensation.” My heart just melted. Because getting kids to genuinely get excited about content can be one of the biggest challenges, I knew we were on to something.

Where do you think VR fits in as more of us are getting accustomed to interacting virtually?

I don’t believe that VR is the be-all-end-all technology nor do I think that VR is done evolving as a technology. I am certain that future versions of VR will be unrecognizable to what VR is today. That said, I do believe that technologies like VR will revolutionize the ways we visualize and simulate anything. In the case of companies like VERE360, we are trying to change the way visualization and simulation happens in schools— ranging from textbook images to lab experiments. I hope that it’s used to provide greater access to high quality educational content and tools. The potential of VR is wasted if it’s not used to democratize access to learning.

How has AWS EdStart helped your company to succeed in education?

We’re fairly new to the EdStart program, but we have already benefited so much and love being a part of it. For anything that we need—technical advice or support—there is something at Edstart to help us out. We have yet to maximize the networking opportunities, but we do see all the events that are happening and we’re really excited to become even more connected.

How has AWS and the cloud enabled you to build and innovate more quickly for education?

The biggest thing has been scale. With AWS and the cloud, we’ve been able to reach more people than we ever have been able to before. It also allows us to optimize our content so that it can reach more people with varying levels of internet access, which is important to us as we’re trying to serve the general public in places like Indonesia and the Philippines.

Is there anything that makes edtech in Singapore particularly unique?

I think one of the most striking characteristics about Singapore’s education landscape is the fact that the government is so heavily involved in every aspect of public education. Everything that comes through a public school here has had some screening by or contact with the Singapore government. And this heavily impacts what kind of edtech companies are successful here.

The general trend in the world is that public education is slow to adopt classroom technology. And relative to private schools, that is the case in Singapore as well. However, especially in light of COVID, there is a big push from the government’s side to incorporate more technology to classrooms. This means providing money to schools to purchase their equipment like tablets, but also technologies like virtual reality.

However, VR technologies are only being utilized by a small fraction of schools because it’s still quite niche and requires very enthusiastic teachers. So even though the implementation of infrastructure and hardware has increased, it doesn’t necessarily translate into behavior that fundamentally changes instruction.

What's next for VERE360?

We continue to approach our goal of achieving 100% access to high quality educational content and tools for the Southeast Asia region and beyond. This means expanding to countries around the region and learning more about how we can support the world’s educational systems.

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