Author: Sharon Moriel, The University of Melbourne, Australia
I stood still for a minute. Caged behind the thick metal bars I could walk about three steps in each direction. I’m not claustrophobic, but at that moment I wished there was a little window in those green mouldy walls. A rusted sink and a not-so-inviting toilet seat set the mood. Wanting to peek through the bars conflicted with a creepiness sensation holding me back. I wasn’t just in any prison, I was in Alcatraz.
“You can take off the headset now” says Ben Loveridge, a Communications and Media Production Consultant in Melbourne University. With green tappets covering the walls of a room full of headsets, remote controls and filming equipment, it is clear why they call it a VR lab. I was definitely back in Melbourne University. Not that I ever left. Well, at least not physically. Without taking a single step outside of that room I was able to travel 7,862 miles to Alcatraz island. This was my first experience with Virtual Reality (VR).
Immersion is the key word. “You are still here, but what you’re seeing is the computer rendering virtual locations and virtual objects in front of you,” Mr. Loveridge explains. The term spatial computing is also used when describing this technology. “You can think about it as if you’re interacting with the computer with your body,” he says, as oppose to being in a different reality.
Reactions to Virtual Reality usually range from a confused expression to thinking of it as a very cool form of gaming. In recent years VR starred in almost every tech conference. Companies like Samsung, HTC, and Google have their gear in stores- carrying the promise of a truly immersive experience.
From mental health to overcoming physical injuries, VR’s potential goes beyond the entertainment scope. From its use back in 1994 for treating acrophobia to more recently helping patients with spinal cord injuries regain partial mobility. Here in Melbourne, Mr. Loveridge is currently working on youth mental health project that uses VR to encourage self-compassion. “That’s how people talk about VR, not so much as a game, it is a VR experience,” says Mr. Loveridge. While my quick Alcatraz bound was entertaining, even educational to some extent, some people have far greater plans for VR.
Dr. Raji Wahidy, is one of them. As the founder of Virtual Rehab, a US-based start-up company, he believes that the use of VR in prisons and rehabilitation centres can potentially bring to a decrease in recidivism rate. Through simulating real-life scenarios with Virtual and Augmented Reality technology they plan to give prisoners a taste of the outside world as part of their rehabilitation.
Last month, they launched a video demonstrating how automotive mechanics can be taught in a VR environment. Vocational training is one of the four areas Virtual Rehab plans to target. Content, also referred to as scenarios, also includes formal education, overcoming psychological challenges, and correctional officers support. Formal education, for example, goes beyond the scope of a typical school curriculum including daily skills like standing in queues or using an ATM machine. In the area of psychological rehabilitation, VR provides a ‘safe environment’ for practicing difficult or complex situations.
Ensuring quality and adequacy of content is of high priority for Virtual Rehab. A diverse advisory board, ranges from government official to psychologists and technology experts, as well as insights from correctional and rehab centres, provides the necessary quality control. Programs are designed for the use of offenders, substance abusers and correctional officers, while also being customised for the local requirements and regulation.
Learning by doing is the philosophy behind the use of VR for educational purposes. “You put the offenders in a virtual reality environment and let them apply [what they learned],” Dr. Wahidy explains how Virtual Rehab plans to use VR’s features. Humans are very good in learning through spaces, Mr. Loveridge confirms. “If you’re teaching something that involves physical location then VR can be quite useful for that,” he says referring to the Virtual Rehab initiative.
As exciting as VR is for some people, others have concerns. Experience of nausea, headaches, and impact on eyesight are among the common health concerns. Living in the digital age, surrounded by screens of all kinds, we often find ourselves bouncing between the virtual and real without noticing. Yet, the possibility of blurring the line between reality and virtual can be quite intimidating. The perception of VR as mental escape might trigger backlash from people who were victims of crime. In their mind, allowing prisoners a slight moment of ‘freedom’ contradicts the idea of serving their punishment.
But make no mistakes — Virtual Rehab is far from being a game for prisoners. In a video conference with Dr. Wahidy from his hometown in Canada, he asks to emphasise that “there is nothing in what we do that is entertaining, everything is educating and rehabilitating”.
So far, VR hasn’t been put into practice in any correctional centre in Australia. Virtual Rehab are promoting this idea as a better long-term approach to reducing recidivism rates both socially and financially. The Education Training and Employment Branch of Corrections Victoria take a generally positive approach to the use of innovation and technology. However, there are various issues to consider such as security and relevance of the educational purposes.
In Victoria alone, according to the Sentencing Advisory Council, recidivism rates in 2014 stood on 44.1% within 2 years, which is slightly lower than the Australian average. Recidivism reduction has been stated by Corrections Victoria as a key strategic goal for 2015–2018. With the Australian corrections system costing taxpayers approximately $3.8 billion a year, a 1% reduction in reoffending translates to $38 million annually. And that is before evaluating the social benefits of crime reduction. Dr. Wahidy firmly believes that the correctional system has the power to drive this change. “If we would spend more money on education and rehabilitation, recidivism rate would be reduced heavily,” he says.
To a large extent, the success of rehabilitation programs depends on active participation. Virtual Reality provides an environment that brings the user to actively engage with the program content. “Being in that situation can make it more real than clicking a button,” says Mr. Loveridge.
While VR equipment is becoming more and more affordable, the cost of developing high quality content remains relatively expensive. Unlike the common belief, realness of VR scenarios doesn’t necessarily depend on its graphics, but rather on real the interaction feels. “We are trying to replicate what is out there in real life and bringing it to VR,” Dr. Wahidy addressing the importance of realness and sense of immersion. While acknowledging the costs involved, Dr. Wahidy and his team are optimistic about VR-based programs potential, and believe it is a matter of adaptation and adoption. Virtual Rehab does not aims to replace, but to complement current tools. “It helps you save costs, increase expertise, and not losing anything in terms of security,” he says.
“This is what it is like in one of the cells” says Ben Loveridge when I ask about the purpose of the Alcatraz scenario. Perhaps, it is precisely what Virtual Reality is all about. While exploring the prison cell, I clearly knew I was not physically in Alcatraz, but my mind was occupied absorbing what I was seeing, hearing, and even feeling. I could experience how it is like. Companies like Virtual Rehab clearly recognise this capability of VR in making people feel something that is beyond the reality they’re in. While critics may look at VR as tricking the mind, we need to remember that everything we experience is, in fact, an interpretation of our mind.