SmokeSCREEN VR Using VR to help teens make better choices 1

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SmokeSCREEN VR is designed to influence teens’ responses to peer pressure around vaping. Its creator, Dr Kimberly Hieftje, talks to VRWorldTech about building a game that encourages skills-based learning

Universities are the playgrounds on which virtual reality (VR) technology and content developers can really be creative, without the demands for growth and revenue that might be made of corporate research and development labs. That’s not to say that serious work isn’t being carried out inside the Fortune 500s, and it’s forgetting the startup surge that powers any modern technological wave. But academic institutions, such as the Ivy League Yale University, get the freedom denied to many other organisations: they get to play.

Yale University’s play4REAL Lab is doing just that, in a bid to develop playable content aimed at health promotion and behavioural interventions among teenagers. The lab, led by director Dr Kimberly Hieftje, a research scientist who is also deputy director of the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games and play2PREVENT lab, is partly funded by Oculus Education and is charged with helping to understand how VR can have the greatest impact on learning outcomes across a variety of scenarios.

Hieftje originally became involved with Oculus in 2017 when she joined the Oculus Launch Pad programme, which was designed to support promising VR content creators from diverse backgrounds.

She explains: “Oculus brought in about 100 individuals from all over the US. We were encouraged to apply if we had ideas. I was really interested in a VR game around health promotion and disease prevention. I was excited by the idea of VR allowing skills-based practice. It just offered a lot more opportunity than a traditional two-dimensional game.”

Then in late 2017, Oculus partnered with several research institutions to set up data-driven research projects designed to improve understanding of which properties of VR may have the greatest impact on learning, under which conditions, and in what subject matters and environments. Yale was one, along with MIT, Cornell University, New York University, the University of Michigan and a handful of others.

It was at this time that vaping and e-cigarettes also became popular among teens, who hadn’t had access to tobacco-based products that appealed to them. Hieftje says: “There wasn’t really anything focusing on health promotion and disease prevention that utilised VR. And e-cigarettes were just becoming an issue, especially in schools.”

The result of this series of events was smokeSCREEN VR, a game designed to influence teens’ responses to peer pressure around vaping, and which includes practice refusals in real-time using voice recognition software.

Following its initial funding from Oculus, play4REAL Lab partnered with the Belgium-based game developer PreviewLabs to develop a prototype. Hieftje says: “PreviewLabs focuses on rapid prototyping and that was really good for us because it meant we could get some really good preliminary findings early on. We went back to Oculus with our results and we got the go ahead to do a randomised trial, and bring the game to schools to test its efficiency.”

The new funding from Oculus is being used to test the effectiveness of such interventions by supporting the randomised controlled trial that play4REAL Lab will conduct with 230 teens. Over the course of many months, Hieftje and her team will investigate whether playing smokeSCREEN VR can affect their attitudes, intentions, social norms, knowledge and behaviours around vaping.

“What we hypothesised we would see through our study is that teens that play smokeSCREEN VR will experience a change in their attitudes, intentions, social norms, knowledge and behaviours around vaping. We’re analysing the results immediately after they play the game, three months later, and then six months, to see if the intervention sticks.”

Hieftje and her team will take some time to see any changes in behaviour take effect. “We’re going to see if playing our game early on, in middle school at the eighth grade, then results in a change in behaviour when these teens are a little older and in high school.”

“We’re also looking at how VR can help with peer pressure, by placing teens in situations where they feel pressured and practising skills to be used during those situations. We’re doing that using voice recognition software so they can speak to characters within the game rather than just clicking or responding to text conversation. Their own voice becomes part of the game, increasing their immersion.”

“I think the biggest part is that immersion, the fact that you’re actually a part of the game and your choices are affecting the outcomes. It’s that immersive factor that lets the user practice these skills and see how their actual choices play out in a safe environment. That’s where we are with VR right now.”

Dr Kimberly Hieftje, Director of Play4REAL Lab

Hieftje adds: “I think the biggest part is that immersion, the fact that you’re actually a part of the game and your choices are affecting the outcomes. It’s that immersive factor that lets the user practice these skills and see how their actual choices play out in a safe environment. That’s where we are with VR right now.”

The study could also result in further research down the line. Hieftje explains: “One of the points of our study is also to see how schools react to using VR. This technology obviously isn’t available in all schools yet. It’s a goal that this technology will be much more accessible to schools and students. But we also need to find out about implementation and dissemination, so getting this technology into schools and then seeing what the barriers and facilitators are to using VR in the class.”

“Part of our study is working with schools to figure out what happens when we leave. We’re coming in and bringing this intervention to their eighth graders, but what happens when we leave and they don’t have the equipment available to continue to do what they’re doing? So we’re working on how to provide them with access and support when we leave.”

play4REAL Lab is focused on smokeSCREEN VR, but Hieftje has an eye on what it can do next. She explains: “We now have our team in place so we’re in a position to start to think about new projects and what kinds of games to work on next.”

“I’m really excited to find out what we can do with health promotion in augmented reality (AR). I really enjoy focusing on teens and risk reduction/prevention, because it’s what I’ve been doing for the past decade. It’s interesting to take what we’ve worked on and see what we can do with it in VR and AR. That’s kind of my next step. We have a few ideas so we’re on the look out our for next partner and pressing ahead with that.”

SmokeSCREEN VR: Using VR to help teens make better choices

Dr Kimberly Hieftje’s interests primarily focus on health promotion and behaviour change through the use of game technology. She is a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine and deputy director of the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games and play2PREVENT Lab. She is also the director of the play4REAL Lab at Yale, which focuses on the use of XR in health prevention and promotion interventions