The task was to design an immersive virtual reality experience to replace traditional autism therapy. We had 3 months to design the experience with help from professors at Northwestern University. Our client was TherapyOS, a VR healthcare startup.
People with autism have sensory processing disorders that require treatment, but traditional therapy is costly and inaccessible.
We designed an engaging VR experience that acts as a sensory room, giving patients the appropriate relaxation and stimulation for therapy.
I led user research and development of the final prototype using the HTC Vive. We were a team of four.
Because autism has such a large spectrum, we wanted to focus on one specific user. Ethan Ducayet turned out to be an ideal candidate for many reasons.
Ethan loves technology and was willing to try on the VR headset.
Ethan is able to navigate new experiences.
Ethan has great attention to detail and an excellent memory.
Ethan was able to give us tangible feedback through surveys.
We used 360 videos, InstaVR (a software to build VR experiences), and HTC Vive games to rapidly prototype VR experiences with our user. The video below shows Ethan testing our prototype in the HTC Vive.
The experience has three environments: the drawing environment, the interaction environment, and the dancing environment. The user begins in the drawing environment, walks into the interaction environment, and finishes in the dancing environment. Each environment is a separate virtual space that you can enter or exit. The design requirements we considered were that the experience be engaging for our user and relevant to sensory therapy.
The drawing environment uses free and guided drawing to motivate creativity and fine motor movement.
The interaction environment is a fantastical atmosphere that can calm hypersensitive people and increase coordination.
The dancing environment has bright visuals and loud music to engage the visual and aural senses of hyposensitive people.
The drawing environment is a calm and creative environment in which the user is guided to first decorate a chair and then design a chair by himself.
Creativity is emphasized by most teachers of special schools to engage students with autism. We also learned first-hand from user testing that Ethan enjoyed drawing objects from his imagination rather than sticking to our instructions.
The fine motor skills required in 3D drawing can engage the user's proprioception— one's subconscious awareness of the position and movement of different parts of the body relative to each other.
The interaction environment is a fantastical atmosphere containing a river with fish, a tree with hanging fruit, and a set of musical strings. The user is guided to perform actions such as cooking fish and chopping wood. Sounds of flowing water and chirping birds play through the headphones.
We made the environment fantastical because we learned from user testing that Ethan preferred the more surreal Tilt Brush sketches that involved fire and dragons rather than realistic scenes.
The environment achieves two goals. Firstly, the soothing visuals and music can be therapeutic for hypersensitive people who experience sensory overload. Secondly, moving objects such as the axe and fish can can help simulate tactile interaction, which is greatly valued by people with autism. For example, when we tested an iPad and a cardboard VR headset with one student we learned that he preferred the iPad because it allowed him to interact using his hands.
The final environment of our design is the dancing environment, with energizing music, bright electricity, and beach balls.
Ethan loves music. When he asked him to rate different VR experiences we tested with him, he rated 5/5 for listening to Mr. Brightside and gave everything else a lesser score.
The bright visuals stimulate the visual system of our user, while the energizing music stimulates the aural system. Such therapy is generally used for people who are hyposensitive.
At the end of the three months, we presented our work to the CEO of our client TherapyOS and a panel of judges from the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University. Our professor was very impressed with our progress and invited us to continue our exploration as a research project. I am excited to see what the future holds.