The first time you took a bus ride alone – can you remember how you felt? Or the first time you went shopping alone? Or the first time you stepped out in a new city, all alone?
Do you remember feeling a tinge of anxiety mixed with the fear of unknown?
Now, also try to remember the sense of achievement you felt when you successfully completed all those tasks for the first time. Travelled to school alone or went to buy what your parents had asked for. These activities are an essential part of one’s personal development. By accomplishing these small tasks on your own, you eventually feel like a grown up. The feeling of success gives you self-esteem, confidence and independence. This is the foundation of your personality and is what inspires you to go further, confront your fears and grow every day.
The anxiety and fear of unknown is amplified manifold for individuals diagnosed with autism or similar learning disabilities. It directly impacts their ability to be completely independent and ultimately their feeling of self-esteem.
But, could there be a solution to this? Could there be a way to make their first independent commute possible?
To instill confidence and a feeling of independence in young students diagnosed with autism in early part of 2020, collaborated with and in Copenhagen, Denmark. These students did not just learn to commute on a bus but also developed a sense of confidence and an ambition to learn more, grow and travel farther.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are serious developmental disorders that impair the ability to communicate and interact. People suffering from these disorders undergo difficulties in terms of cognitive, social, emotional, and physical health development.
While the range and severity of these symptoms can vary widely, teaching basic life skills to these students takes a lot of dedicated time and effort. The trainers need to invest a lot working individually with the students, handholding them in real life situations till they are confident enough.
Commuting independently is one of the skills systematically taught to adolescents with learning disability. Traditionally, this involves explaining the route to the students, commuting with them a few times till they feel confident to take public transport by themselves. Until such time, special transportation arrangements (taxi) are made for these students, often for many years. enable teachers to train more students effectively and in a safe environment while they’re being prepared for real world situations.
Our challenge was two-fold. The first was to come up with a solution that would enable teachers to train more students effectively and in a safe environment while they’re being prepared for real world situations. And the second was to keep students motivated and engaged during the whole process.
Multiple researches have documented the effectiveness of VR Therapy in managing Autism Spectrum Disorders. Researches have proven the positive impact of VR therapy in managing conditions like Social Anxiety, Post-stroke treatments, Psychosis etc. VR therapy is also gaining popularity in developing behavioral and cognitive skills for children and adolescents with ASD and ADHD. The efficacy of Virtual Reality stems from the fact that it offers flexible learning environments that minimize errors, time, and costs and at the same time improves users' motivation through a safe training environment with enjoyable and user-friendly interfaces.
In the beginning of 2020, a multifunctional team was put together which included teachers and experts in the area of autism, VR, design thinking, UX and solution architects. This team, comprising of members from Rødovre Municipality, KP and Bosch came together and worked over several months on developing a gamified version of VR Therapy as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Apart from myself, the core team from Bosch , Anisree Sundaresan, Sivamurugan Soundarapandian, Ankit Parichha, Deepa Kumari, Megha Sen, Sushil Mishra and Ashik Kanangot, together with and from our units in Denmark and Germany respectively.
The team worked closely with Sune Buch Sloth (Senior Consultant and Program Manager, Welfare Technologies, Rødovre Kommune), Ann Ramussen (Senior Advisor, Public-Private Innovation, KP) and teachers to brainstorm on innovative solutions for the challenge.
VR Bus Ride
The objective was set: ‘To enable a set of identified students with pre-existing learning challenges to commute independently using public transport’. A VR solution that could make the experience realistic and rewarding, was proposed.
We developed a VR based travel training game called VR Bus Ride that incorporated realistic environmental and natural interactions. The key objective of the game was to help students learn to commute independently in a safe and controlled, yet fun environment under guided supervision. In the game, a virtual companion takes the students through the whole experience of travelling by themselves. The simulation is designed to expose the students to real-world experiences, gradually, without overwhelming them with multiple sensory inputs in the beginning itself (which is what happens in real life- whether we realize it or not). This enables a smooth transit from being dependent to becoming independent.
Once the MVP was developed, for the first time in their lives, a group of young adults travelled independently using public transport.
The teachers played a critical role in providing inputs during development and then during the testing phases. The students who trusted their teachers, were able to go through the sessions under their teachers’ guidance.
In addition, the students also managed to build a sense of camaraderie as they went through the training process together. The complete experience triggered their ambition to travel farther and to newer places independently.
Some of these students now want to commute independently to their internships, some want to explore new destinations and are all looking forward to more routes on VR Bus Ride to continue their learning.
A panel of experts from the fields of education, psychology and technology were present throughout the project to provide expert opinions and inputs, to evaluate the model and to ensure the effectiveness of this solution.
The excitement and smiles on the faces of students when they got off the bus made all the efforts worthwhile. We are convinced that VR Bus Ride will make a huge impact on the lives of these students, staying true to our philosophy of #InventedForLife.
The VR Bus Ride is just the beginning. These learning concepts as well as the application can be expanded to address disorders such as social anxiety, specific phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), persecutory delusions etc.
The complexity and realism of these VR experiences can be customized for different individuals to ensure the best fit. A close collaboration with therapists, clinicians, teachers is required to develop the right solutions.
This technology allows people to master different tasks without having to take the risks of a real-world situation in a state of helplessness. The aim is to increase independence at home, school and in the social community we live in.
“There are many intangible benefits in terms of building self-esteem and decision-making skills that are associated with the regular and independent bus trips the students can now make. This is where our solution “VR bus Ride” adds value beyond just the increased mobility. Starting the new school year in September 2020, we will be working with Rødovre to include many more students in the VR Bus Ride program.” added Mr. Edgar Huerfeld (RBEB/GM) in response to a query on future plans. #InventedForLife
“We at Rødovre Municipality had a challenge of enabling our students to commute independently. It all started with a Design workshop jointly conducted by Design Thinking Group, Bosch, Københavns Professionshøjskole and Rødovre Kommune.
Bosch was then able to create an MVP which was used to train few students with cognitive disabilities.
Before they tried the simulation none of the students felt confident to take the bus by themselves. After trying the simulation they now expressed confidence that they could do it and were now up to the challenge. One week later these students were taken for a real-life test these students surprised us by being able to take the real bus route without any assistance.
The next step is to create further routes and improve upon the design of the prototype. The end-goal is to have access to a complete transport-simulator where we can order a specific bus-route where we can train specific students or other citizens to be self-reliant and independent when it comes to transportation.
We are also bring more universities on board, Aalborg University Copenhagen (Multisensory Experience Lab) have now become part of the project and are working publishing on a peer-reviewed article together with KP.“
- Mr. Sune Buch-Sloth (Chefkonsulent, Velfærdsteknologi) Rødovre Municipality
Author: Srinivasulu Nasam, Chief Expert- Technology Solutions Group