The Making of Virtual Reality: The Official VR Kids Blog

VR Kids featured interview on The Drax Files Radio Hour
[with Jo Yardley]
September 30, 2015

This transcript has been edited for content and readability.

Drax: “Let’s go straight to my conversation with RJ Sampson the founder, executive director, and lead virtual reality programmer of VR Kids, and Reggie Millsaps Jr. director of marketing and communications. It’s an organization out of Las Vegas, they have 5 people on staff, they make VR content specifically geared towards kids with mobility impairment, permanently disabled kids, or kids awaiting surgery in a hospital setting, or kids who are otherwise isolated from their peers. You know Jo how passionate I am about the use of virtual spaces for learning and young folks, so this is an amazing effort. They are starting small and hopefully this becomes big very soon as it’s sorely needed. Last week it was all about numbers, sales, and units, and certainly this is a disenfranchised group of stakeholders that will probably not be served by ninety percent of the content that people develop because there’s not a lot of money to be made.”

Jo Yardley: “It may not be a huge financial deal at first or may not seem like so, but if this works I can image pretty much every hospital wanting it, so there is some possible business in there, if you can get it right, if you can really get something that makes things a lot better for kids who are in the hospital. For instance, I can also imagine using VR to sort of explain to children, patients, what is going to happen to them. We want patients to know everything because apparently a lot of people feel a lot better about an operation if they know exactly what is going to happen.”

Drax: “They can walk through their own body and a la The Fantastic Voyage, Isaac Asimov.”

Jo Yardley: “Let them crawl into their own body and shoot whatever part of their body that needs to be take out.”

Drax: “Oh yeah.”

Jo Yardley: “Then tell them, ‘Yep, that’s what the doctor is going to do.’”

Drax: “I knew that guns were going to come in at some point, you know what.”

Jo Yardley: “Yep.”

Drax: “I see a 24 Jack Bauer type situation for kids, with terrorists that invaded your body.“

Jo Yardley: “Haha! That might not work.”

Drax: “Ok, before we go on with these fabulous ideas, RJ give me a call after the show! Here’s RJ Sampson describing in his own words what they do over there at VR Kids.”

RJ Sampson: “The way we describe what we do is typically we’ll ask people if they’ve ever heard of virtual reality. Most people have heard of it but they don’t really know what it means. So we’ll try to explain it from a standpoint of, it’s kind of like a lucid dream but more real, that it’s kind of like a video games except you’re inside the video game (in that everything that you see and hear is being controlled by the program), that it’s very immersive, and that people find, especially the first time they go into virtual reality, it tends to be quite an experience for most people.

As far is what we do with virtual reality, we are targeting kids who are either mobility impaired or hospital bound, looking at kids who spend most of their day in a wheelchair, and give them that ability to escape, and that freedom that our VR experiences are tailored to do. We really target kids with special needs. Our VR experiences are like virtual storybooks. There are characters in the story, they’re talking to you, conversing with you. They’re taking you through the story with them, introducing you to their friends, and taking you on an experience that they enjoy. In the case of ‘Journey to the Big Bear Festival’, they’re taking you to see this fireworks show that is happening over the lake, so the whole journey is getting to that festival and meeting up with all his friends along the way. By the time you get there you feel like you have a really good rapport with the characters, and you’re enjoying the same things they are. It’s very relaxing and slow moving but at the same time we keep it interesting with lots of comedy-type things that the kids really seem to enjoy.”

Drax: “I’m really so thrilled to hear that you guys exist and what you’re doing and what I learned about you from the website, working with these kids. Now you guys have to convince people that might be very, very skeptical with this type of medium. It seems to me, very split, very extreme opinions. It’s either some people embrace technology as the bringer of everything good and others say, ‘no, no, no the kids are glued to screen they need to go outside, they need to smell the flowers.’, that kind of dichotomy. Are you dealing with that, especially with kids? Concerned parents? Concerned educators?”

RJ Sampson: “Well it’s interesting, in our experience, with the direction that we’re taking, is these families come to us and they are coming to us via word of mouth, from other parents who’ve already had their child experience this. Keep in mind these kids can’t hold an Xbox controller necessarily. They are not in a situation where they are spending most of their time in front of a screen. Now, their parents may have them in front of a TV part of the day to help them, but if you spend most of your time in a hospital bed or at home in a bed or in a wheelchair, you’re probably not sitting there with a screen and holding an iPhone or an iPad all day playing games. This is a new experience for them. We haven’t heard any pushback. Most families are so grateful that we’re here, that we’re a nonprofit, that we’re doing this for free, and they consider what we are doing a blessing to their family.”

Drax: “I can see though that critics could say this is just another way of killing time. Go like, ‘Ok well these disabled kids, just sit them in front of here and they have some stuff going on.’ There’s a lot of dystopian visions out there in science fiction. There’s a fabulous British called The Black Mirror where people are sort of enslaved in front of screens and they have to ride a bicycle to create their own electricity to keep their own entertainment going. So how are you trying to bring more to this fascinating, awesome medium, than just time killing entertainment?”

RJ Sampson: “Think about it this way, what we are doing is not considered entertainment. We are not the game bus pulling up with a bunch of Wii’s in it and all the kids run in and play games for a couple of hours. We are not a birthday party, we’re not the clown, we’re not the entertainment.

Imagine a child who is waiting to go into a surgery. They are very stressed, and their family is stressed, and it’s a really hard time. We go to the hospital and provide the child with a therapeutic VR experience, which is only three to eleven minutes, depending on the child we have this fully configurable customized engine so each child has a very unique experience based on their own needs. We don’t treat it as entertainment, we treat it as therapy. That’s our philosophy behind it. We’re just starting now to work with some psychology professors at UNLV, the college here in Las Vegas. They are super excited to start researching with us all the things that we are finding out as we’ve been doing this. Our attitude is not entertainment, we don’t sell it as entertainment. We are justing looking to help kids who are at a certain time in their life. We are not giving kids access to this all the time. We come to them with the hardware, the software, we set it up, we configure the headset specifically for that child, they go through the experience, and then we leave.”

Reggie Millsaps Jr.: “Right, we’re not selling anything there’s nothing attached to that.”

RJ Sampson: “We don’t leave the equipment with them.”

Reggie Millsaps Jr.:“Once the experience is done, that’s it.”

RJ Sampson: “These parents don’t understand the technology. They aren’t going to go and buy a high end laptop or desktop with a head-mounted display and try to configure it, and know what software is safe for their kid. Most of the parents that we’ve been dealing with so absorbed with the problems they are having with their child and all the issues they are trying to work through in the healthcare side of their lives, that this is not something they’re really thinking about, it’s not. We haven’t heard from any critics yet and no one has said anything negative yet. I’m sure it will happen at some point, especially as we get bigger and we have more people working on this.”

Drax: “When you’re working with professionals in that field hopefully you can even write a paper or something that shows how the quality of life improvement might be long term, and is really kind of tangible or measurable. Is that something you guys are thinking about?”

RJ Sampson: “Yes, we’re always looking at how we make sure everything we’re doing is for the benefit of the mental well being of the child. Every decision we make is around that. That’s why we are involving folks from the university, because we don’t want to just put a game out, that’s not what this is about, even though we are using the Unreal Engine to produce this system, we’re not building games, we’re building therapeutic VR experiences.”

Drax: “That was my next question. How does it work? Nuts and bolts? You’re using the Unreal Engine? How do you come up with the environments, the stories, the experiences? What inspires you?”

RJ Sampson: “I have kids myself, I have four boys, ages ten to fifteen. Since they were little we’ve always been involved in video games so they’ve seen a lot of different things. I’ve seen what gets them excited and what doesn’t. When we’re looking at what we want to do for these kids, which is a little different, we want something that can take them somewhere they never think about, somewhere new, somewhere they’ve never been. But we also want it to feel familiar. In ‘Journey to the Big Bear Festival’ you start off at Teddy’s house. You’re in a house, a familiar environment, there’s is couch, a table and chairs, there’s windows, you can see the outside. It’s very calm, Teddy comes in and talks to you, but the idea is that we want it to be magical too. We want it to take you out of this world that you’re in, because the world you’re in now is not always the most fun place for you. We use magic and in that Teddy opens up gateways and these portals open, and you go through with him and you end up in another world. Teddy’s not a very good magician and he doesn’t know how to use his powers very well, so you end up way up high in a tree and he’s way down below you and he’s yelling to you, ‘Hey! Down here!’. This forces the child to have to look for him a little bit, which not all the kids that we help can do. That in itself could be an interesting piece of this thing. How can we work with therapists to design experiences that the kid would not normally participate in the therapy? I was talking with this one therapist and every time that she would go to the child’s house, the child didn’t want to participate at all. Just ‘No, leave me alone, I don’t want to do it.’ Because it’s not fun, it’s almost painful sometimes because they way they are being forced to move in certain positions and stay there and move back.”

Drax: “Physical therapy, yes, it can be very obtrusive, your whole life is sort of controlled from that point of view.”

RJ Sampson: “So in this situation, working with a physical therapist we can design experiences that allow the child to want to take that action without the therapist saying, ‘You need to do this now, now we are going to do this.’ We can build things into virtual reality that the child is already interested in. So now they are trying to do this move because they want to see something that’s happening over there out of the periphery but they can hear it happening. We can work with therapist to design experiences that help with that.”

Reggie Millsaps Jr.: “It’s super immersive, and the cool part is that because of the technology, and you’ve already touched on it quite it bit, because of the technology, we’re able to use so many of the elements to make it something unique. Because of those elements, each child responds differently. Coupled together, the Unreal Engine, the Rift, and the story itself, it’s definitely been designed around what’s available to us get the maximum immersive effect out of it.”

Drax: “Are you dealing sometimes with children who are paralyzed to the extent where they can only move their head and have substantial impairment in movement and might only be able to move the head?”

RJ Sampson: “We haven’t experienced that yet, we expect to and we’re looking at how we manage that situation because I think that child is a good candidate for this. That’s why we built our experience in such a way that it’s extremely customizable. There’s a settings screen before the experience starts where you can turn on and off a whole bunch of different parts of it. If you experience the entire story of ‘Journey to the Big Bear Festival’, it’s eleven and a half minutes and it takes you through every single piece of this journey. But for someone in that situation or someone who can’t provide us feedback, that is the other real big challenge. Obviously some people in virtual reality get motion sickness, so we’re very careful. We have scenes where nothing moves, but you can still look around. But if someone can’t provide us feedback, we have to tailor the experience so that it’s a very short experience. Then we stop, then we evaluate, and then we can go back and adjust it as we need to if we decide it’s good to continue.”

Drax: “I tried the Volt headset at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Expo and they have a video online as well, they have eye tracking. Eye tracking seems to be the next step to be built into many headsets. You could imagine creating an experience, they demo’d that in their video, where you can create interactivity which just the eyes looking a certain way or triggering keys of a keyboard or something like that.”

RJ Sampson: “Yes, I’ve been seeing that as well.”

Drax: “Operationally now, you mentioned this earlier, you go to places. I imagine logistically as you are growing, you must be constantly on the road with the headsets going to different people. When you grow you obviously have to expand or have a hotline, or a calendar where people can book you to come to the events or come to the parents homes. How does it work right now and where do you see this go?”

Reggie Millsaps Jr.: “Basically, we want to grow and that’s our intention, but right now we’re just focussed right here at home. There is definitely a benefit to having our five person staff, we kind of alternate in order to make sessions work. We haven’t run into too many scheduling issues. With the parents we’ve dealt with so far scheduling has been great, ‘Whenever you guys are ready, we want you to come’. It’s been really flexible right now, but I suppose once we getting bigger we’ll have to make some adjustments and we’ll certainly cross that hurdle when we get there. But that’s the exciting part of it, that would mean we are helping more kids, and that’s definitely what our intention is, to help as many as we can.”

Drax: “We’re at a juncture right now where the headsets are not available on the market, so how do you actually envision this change, when it comes out, the Oculus first and then the others, who knows when they’re coming, they are probably putting pedal to the metal. I suppose after Oculus Connect where they pushed out all these features. The hype is increasing! Do you envision a lot of people having headsets at home?”

RJ Sampson: “With the families that we’re targeting technology is not a big part of their lives, in that aspect.”

Reggie Millsaps Jr.: “Exactly, they wouldn’t have headsets like you’re saying, a Playstation VR or any one of the different ones that are coming out because this is more of a niche type of thing so this is more interesting to them.”

RJ Sampson: “I’m sure there will be families whose parents have the money to afford a high end gaming system and purchase an Oculus Rift and get that going for their kids and that’s great. We have no intention of making our software downloadable. That’s not what we’re about, because like we said, these are very tailored experiences. We want to help kids individually, so it’s a little different. I don’t think the adoption of virtual reality at that level is going to happen very quickly. I think there is going to be your enthusiast crowd that comes in first, you’re going to have your stands at Best Buy and people are going to look at it and say ‘oh that’s cool’ but they are not going to understand how to purchase the PC and set it up, and set up the Rift, and the cameras. Most people aren’t going to have the patience for it right away. Once it get’s past that hurdle, I see years from now where it’s part of your home maybe, or part of your entertainment system, or it doesn’t even require the Oculus Rift anymore, there’s some other holographic, that’s when it will get more popular.”

Drax: “It is really refreshing to hear your down to earth critical voice. For me who has lived in California for a long time, you hear enthusiastic hype that is such a maelstrom. Now in Germany, the Rift, I don’t know if anybody, in Munich maybe there’s two people that have an Oculus Rift. Nobody has heard, when I say next year this might be at the store and it’s like, ‘What? Are you kidding me? No way!’ I agree with you, but more importantly, you’re really providing, really targeting, as you said, you’re targeting a really different crowd which to me is really fascinating, because everything is focussed on satisfying the gamers that can shell out, for however they do it, two grand for a new machine and a headset, and you’re really helping out the people who benefit from that.”

RJ Sampson: “That’s where we’re at too. We’re not in this to profit from it, we are in it to help as many kids as we can. Even though I think over the next few years virtual reality is going to be more prevalent, people are going to know what it is, I don’t think that access to it is going to be as prevalent.”

Drax: “Now you described your experience, what’s the level of interactivity with the experience you describe with the bear? Can I walk around? Can I interact with the environment? Or do I have to envision it as an immersive animated movie?”

RJ Sampson: “It’s a combination of things. One of the things we’ve actually done in the past but removed was eye contact. When you look at something in the scene we cause something to happen. But we found that to sometimes be confusing so we eliminated that temporarily until we can experiment a little bit more. Right now our experiences are like a ride at Disney World. You are in one place, but you move through the scene kind of like ‘Small World’ and everything is happening around you. But the characters interact with you, they walk up to you, they talk to you, they talk to each other. In that sense it’s like a story. There is a story element to it so we consider it like a virtual storybook. But at the same time it is kind of like a Disney ride where you’re going through an environment, you’re not sitting in one place, you are moving through it.”

Drax: “The next step would be I guess to have an element where the child could start shaping the world in a Second Life, Minecraft type way.”

RJ Sampson: “Remember our target is therapeutic not creativity in a way so what we’re looking to do…”

Drax: “Creativity can be extremely therapeutic.”

RJ Sampson: “I understand that, but I’m saying for the amount of time we’re spending with the child we want to help them escape a little bit what they’re going through at that time. So the child waiting to go into surgery, they only have a couple of hours, or a day, so what we want to do is relieve stress and bring joy. That’s what we’re targeting. If we have to spend time training them on how to build stuff, how to use the tools, because they’ve never used virtual reality, they may not understand how to control things with their hands. We don’t want to make it complicated. I think as we grow, and this experience gets out there, and we have teams doing this all over the country, as we’re working with the researchers at colleges and coming up with other programs, I think there is something in the future that we could come up with for that. But it would be a different program than the program we’re promoting today.”

Drax: “Yeah, it makes sense, the promise of virtual reality I see for able-bodied kids, granted what kind of pleasure they get from shaping the world, experiencing that kind of creativity that is unleashed can improve quality of life in any circumstance.”

RJ Sampson: “Right, I think that would be a long term program of virtual reality itself. Microsoft just announced Minecraft for the Oculus Rift, that’s going to be coming out. I think there is going to be enough of that out there that we don’t need to try to rebuild that. What we may end up doing is taking cues from that to create a much simpler way to interact with the environment than using an Xbox controller because we don’t think that’s good for these kids.”

Drax: “Again you mentioned now the kids being in a situation where they await surgery or they are in kind of a limited situation of physical impairment. Just to make it clear we’re also talking about kids who are in a permanent state of physical impairment.”

RJ Sampson: “Yes.”

Drax: “What would you recommend when you go to parents that book your services and experience and then you take it away again. How do you recommend for these parents to go forward and incorporate that into the kids lives maybe more permanently?”

RJ Sampson: “If they ask about it then we can provide them the resources to build that system and set it up themselves at the house. One of the frustrating things is if someone signs up and we go and after our evaluation we can’t do the experience at all. Their IPD’s to small, their head’s to small for the HMD, they can’t support the HMD properly, that’s the sadder part.”

Drax: “Wow! I never thought about that, so explain that, so you have situation where you just can’t physically fit the headset and it just wouldn’t work.”

RJ Sampson: “Yes, if the IPD measurement is off, we don’t want to put a child in a situation where they could get motion sickness, or it’s a blurry headache inducing environment, or if their strength in their head or neck can’t support the weight of the pound of the Rift, the headphones or whatever. We just can’t do it, so that’s the most unfortunate situation for us.”

Drax: “Yeah I find this a really, really cool thing that you guys are doing. More power to you. I hope that it catches on. I imagine you can work with hospitals, maybe a semi-permanent station there, when the Rift is maybe more available in the market. Are you documenting this in some sort of fashion with video of the kids in the experience, maybe an interview with the parents, how they experience it?”

RJ Sampson: “Yes absolutely! If you go on our VR Kids YouTube channel we just published one the day before yesterday. There’s a new video, it’s ‘VR Kids Interview with Kristina’, who is the mother of Evan. We documented his VR experience through an interview with her. We actually brought a photographer and did green-screen footage of him in the experience, so we could put the experience in front of it to help people understand. Our two latest videos on our channel are to address our biggest challenge, which is ‘What is VR Kids therapeutic virtual reality?’ What is VR Kids actually doing? Most people still don’t quite understand it so we’ve been putting a video series together to explain it, show it, hear it from a mom, and explain it ourselves. Our hope is that as more people learn about what we do, and they see these videos, it kind of clicks, and they say, ‘I got it, this makes sense.’, because until you experience it, you don’t know what it’s like.”

Drax: “Alright that was RJ Sampson and Reggie Millsaps Jr. from VR Kids, really, a very cool project.”

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