VR for social good By partnering with researchers and entrepreneurs, UF students and professors test virtual reality's ability to solve problems and improve lives

By Alisson Clark and Cecilia Mazanec/UF News

In a journalism classroom, a computer scientist helped an architecture major, a law student and an aspiring nurse create virtual-reality simulations. Their projects weren’t designed to entertain, but to explore virtual reality’s potential for social good.

It was the first class in the University of Florida’s VR for the Social Good Initiative, a campus-wide effort directed by computer science professor Benjamin Lok and journalism professor Sri Kalyanaraman, director of the Media Effects and Technology Lab at the College of Journalism and Communications.

Lok says he wants students to create rather than just consume the technology, thereby becoming leaders in the field.

“The goal here is to work on something that’s going to impact all of us,” he said.

The VR for the Social Good course (JOU4930/MMC6936 in journalism and CAP4930/6930 in computer engineering), is offered during the fall, spring and summer semesters and is open to students from any major and any level, from freshmen to graduate students. No previous VR or programming experience is required: In fact, Lok said his ideal class would be one-third artists, one-third storytellers and one-third computer scientists. He hopes to eventually have all of UF’s colleges involved.

“What I would love to do is to decentralize it,” he said. “I would love this to be in every building across campus.”

Teams in the first class — held over the summer in the College of Journalism and Communications — tackled four issues. One focused on “virtual verdancy,” a way to extend the healing effects of nature to those without access to green space. Another showed the effects of sugar overconsumption on a parent and child, while the third created a game environment to improve resiliency in patients with chronic pain.

The fourth team developed an immersive environment envisioning sea-level rise in Miami Beach, drawing on the expertise of mentors including environmental and land use law professors Tom Ankersen and Alyson Flournoy. By putting on a VR headset, users navigate two different versions of what the city might look like after either an adaptive or reactive approach to sea-level rise.

In the Fall 2017 class, VR for Social Good student Mariann Makar created a simulation to encourage reading in developing countries.

“The versatility of the platform is what makes it truly unique and innovative," said Kalyanaraman. The class’s approach, he says, brings together the seekers — those who want to use VR in a research project — and the solvers — the students who work with the seekers on providing customized solutions.

Student Kyle Walsh's project helps users visualize the fossil fuel outputs around them.

The prototypes built as part of the class can be used to gather pilot data to help determine their effectiveness as tools for social good, said the course’s instructor, postdoctoral associate Shiva Halan. The sugar simulation has already attracted attention from researchers beyond UF, said Daniel Pimentel, a doctoral student and coordinator of the Media Effects and Technology Lab, who worked on the project.

Daniel Pimentel demonstrates a virtual reality simulation in the Media Effects and Technology Lab.

The class is now in its second semester, with another section planned for spring 2018.

Because of the university’s size and resources, Lok thinks UF could become the blueprint for how to successfully connect professionals and students. In the fall class, a filmmaker and a local company, as well as faculty from pediatrics, construction management and the UF Libraries were among those who pitched ideas for his class of 50 to create. In the spring, Lok said he’s opened it up for 100 students, which will enable the class to create VR simulations for 25 topics. (Faculty and staff interested in having the class develop a simulation for their work for can learn more at vrforthesocialgood.com.)

Student Takashi Wickes' virtual reality simulation shows how difficult learning can be for kids who need, but don't have, eyeglasses.

Lok said he likes to use the analogy of the iPhone to explain the capabilities of VR. The smartest thing the Apple designers did, he said, is let others build apps for the phone.

“They had no idea that people would be using the apps, the phone for things that they could not have dreamed,” he said. “But it’s only because you let a lot of other people dream along with you.”

Students in the Fall 2017 class will demonstrate their VR projects from 12:30-2:30 p.m. December 12 at the Made@UF Lab in the Marston Science Library basement.


Photos by Ryan Jones, College of Journalism and Communications

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