This is a guest post is written by Amy Robinson at Immersive Reality.
An introduction to immersive technology
The word ‘immersive’ is used to describe experiences that completely surround a person to make them feel part of an alternative environment.
In the context of technology, ‘immersive’ refers to anything that digitally extends or replaces reality for the user. (Digital Catapult, 2020) It consists of multiple emerging technologies, including virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and computerised simulation, among many others.
For many years, technology has played an important role in reducing opportunity gaps, especially amongst disadvantaged and underrepresented communities – from assistive technologies that create independence for people with disabilities, to learning platforms that provide access to educational content.
Immersive technology continues this trend, as it reduces barriers and creates opportunities to solve problems, seize new opportunities, and push innovation forward. (Digital Catapult, 2020)
Increasingly found in school classrooms, it provides alternative real-world experiences which promote students’ level of understanding and encourages innovative thinking in education. (Zheng, 2020)
It’s predicted that the next decade is going to be an era of immersive technology becoming the mainstream, influencing every aspect of our lives and work. (Feuer, 2020).
What is an immersive space?
Here at Immersive Reality, we create awe-inspiring immersive spaces.
Bridging the gap between imagination and real life, we are a UK-based company making ground-breaking steps in inclusive technology for education.
Our unique spaces are a combination of classroom, sensory room and therapy room. Combining high definition (HD) projection on multiple walls and floors, we produce shared experiences which are inclusive for all.
Put simply, it is virtual reality without the headset, creating collaborative experiences for users. Frequently used in schools, our immersive spaces are perfect for teaching children – particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities.
Not only does the absence of headsets allow for shared experiences, but it also opens up new opportunities for individuals who can’t wear a headset. Of course, traditional virtual reality headsets are amazing technology, but for certain users they’re simply not feasible.
People with limited mobility can’t experience VR headsets without assistance, and even with a headset on, many would be unable to make the head or body movements necessary to get the full VR experience.
The problem isn’t limited to those with physical impairments; people on the autistic spectrum and those with anxiety, for example, may also struggle to use headsets, as they can cause feelings of isolation. (Phillips, 2020)
Many pupils with autism wouldn’t tolerate having a headset on their face (Gera, 2018) and children with other learning difficulties may not understand their surroundings when wearing a headset, and are likely to become disoriented or anxious. (Bailey and Bailenson, 2017)
Users with special educational needs may also be non-verbal, so their teacher or carer will need to see their facial expressions to truly understand whether they are enjoying the experience or not.
Putting individuals such as these in a headset could be very traumatic for them, as they wouldn’t be able to tell their carer whether they were enjoying it or not! (Gent, 2016) If they don’t like it, how can they escape?
If the only way of experiencing VR was through a headset, this would mean that so many people could miss out on a huge array of experiences and enhanced learning. But with our immersive spaces, they have the chance to experience VR in a unique and inclusive way!
Users are able to engage with our system through touch sensitive walls, full interactive floor and gesture control.
Imagine being in a flowery meadow surrounded by butterflies, where placing your hand on the wall will cause the butterflies to land and settle on your hand! Or zooming through the solar system and touching the planets to learn more about them.
Our system is also accessible through a range of wireless controllers, which allow users to discover huge explorable environments. These include the Xbox Wireless Controller and the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was specially designed for people with disabilities.
A static room can be transformed into a space that is truly immersive through the use of these controllers. Not only are you surrounded by stunning 360˚imagery, but you are able to control it and move through it in any direction you wish.
Our extensive range of content develops many skills, including both fine and gross motor skills, as well as colour recognition and cause and effect skills.
Each wall uses laser technology to detect the smallest motion. It will detect a single finger, hand or multiple points of contact from multiple people. This makes scenes exciting and fun, whilst developing hand-eye coordination and tracking skills.
360˚ images wrap around the room, giving pupils the feeling that they are really there. The spaces create unique opportunities for children to learn, explore, and even practice real life scenarios.
Students learn better through experience (Educating Adventures, 2021), however, some experiences aren’t possible or practical for all students, due to reasons such as lack of funds, disabilities or transport issues.
Immersive spaces allow schools to save time and money, whilst providing students from all backgrounds with incredible experiences. Students can learn about the world around them in a safe and controlled environment.
An immersive space allows teachers to take the lesson in a more normal way, which would be difficult to achieve with headsets, where each pupil would be isolated from the outside world, and each other.
Pupils can look around and explore the virtual surroundings, but in a way that keeps them engaged with their teachers and peers.
It’s perfect for encouraging interaction and getting children to discuss what they’ve seen – a talking point even for the most introverted pupils. This develops turn taking skills, encourages working in a team and reduces social barriers.
Visit a Japanese temple, explore a Viking village, and even travel to ancient Egypt! These visually appealing scenes enhance learning and give students a better understanding of historical events and places, whilst being entertaining at the same time.
Explorational scenes such as these spark the imagination and encourage creative thinking. This in turn inspires creative writing, as pupils can be asked to write about what they have seen within the room.
Immersive reality’s in-house content creators design stunning bespoke content for our spaces. If there is a certain place that pupils want to explore, we can create this especially for the individual school, helping children to really grasp the subjects they’re learning about.
This is also beneficial to teachers, who can explain lessons in more detail: the supporting content gives lessons a context. Instead of reading a large amount of writing in a textbook, pupils can experience subjects first hand, making learning more engaging and dynamic.
The high quality surround sound system adds to the feeling of immersion, which lets the user experience the delicate rustling of leaves on a windy autumn day, to the thunderous roar of a rocket launching!
Designed to be intuitive for all users, using Immersive Reality’s system is exceptionally easy and does not require any technical knowledge. Simply press a button on a wireless tablet to select a scene – and that’s it! Teachers can change from subject to subject with ease.
Benefits of immersive spaces for children with special educational needs
Immersive spaces offer incredible opportunities when it comes to making learning and experiences more inclusive.
At Immersive Reality, we have based our philosophy on assisting the improvement of educational and key life skills in young children – particularly for those with special educational needs.
Because our system is highly adaptable and customisable to individual users and for specific situations, it minimises physical barriers. This allows people of all abilities to get involved with the experiences on offer.
Immersive Reality’s bespoke content enhances all subjects, to promote an engaging and inclusive group experience. A particularly unique aspect of our system is our simulations, which prepare pupils to take on a multitude of scenarios and challenges.
Simulations have been found to be especially helpful for students with special education needs, such as autism. Studies show that children with autism can apply skills they have learnt in a virtual environment to the real world. (Strickland et al, 2007)
People with autism can struggle with changes in routine, and can find new and unknown situations stressful, leading to anxiety.
“The world can seem a very unpredictable and confusing place to autistic people, who often prefer to have a daily routine so that they know what is going to happen every day.” (National Autistic Society, 2022)
Immersive spaces give children the chance to virtually experience events, situations and places, to provide them with a sense of familiarity before undertaking new challenges in real life.
We have a range of simulations that allow pupils to gain confidence with many everyday activities. These include navigating the London underground, going shopping, getting a bus and boarding an aircraft.
Pupils can develop confidence with environments that they may perceive as daunting or threatening. Because the simulations can be practised with someone they trust, these ‘scary’ situations can be trialled and tested in a safe and familiar environment.
For pupils with special educational needs, experiences can be adapted to suit them individually. This is made possible through the use of CGI (computer generated imagery) in our system, allowing the teacher to tailor each scenario to the individual. For example – a train could be empty, full of a handful of people, or jam-packed. The train could also turn up late, or never turn up.
This flexibility means that individuals of all abilities can use our platform to gain confidence and develop key life skills, including navigation skills, social skills, time keeping and decision making, amongst many others.
The skills can be practised in a reassuring environment, allowing pupils to prepare for an event with someone familiar. And if it gets too much, the system can whisk them away somewhere safe.
Early evidence in research has demonstrated cognitive and mental health benefits of immersive technology, as it provides opportunities for experiential learning (learning through experience) and facilitates multiple perspectives – which can help children to become more empathetic. (Kim & Co, 2019)
All children have very individual learning preferences, however, children with special educational needs tend to prefer visual learning, and often respond well to eye contact and direct communication. (The Good Schools Guide, 2022)
Taking lessons in an immersive environment is perfect for learning visually, as it allows children to really get involved with what they’re being taught.
When learning about space, planets zoom across the room, and children can touch the planets as they appear, bringing up information about them to help with their science lessons! The visual and interactive way of learning makes it much easier for children to remember what they are learning about.
Immersive spaces are also a perfect safe space for children to retreat too when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Sensory issues are common amongst people with special educational needs, particularly those on the autistic spectrum. Sensory issues are even included in the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum condition. Each autistic person is unique, and of course, this includes their personal sensory sensitivities.
Autistic people can experience both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli. Most people on the autistic spectrum have a combination of both.
Sensory overload happens when an intense sensory stimulus overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. It can be triggered by a single event, such as an unexpected loud noise, or it can build up over time by smaller events adding up and becoming overwhelming. Triggers include multiple conversations going on at once, bright lights, temperature changes, and crowded places.
During sensory overload, the brain struggles to interpret everything at the same time. Some people describe this as feeling as though they are ‘stuck’ – as the brain can’t prioritise what sensory information it needs to focus on.
Because of this, sensory overload can feel like intense anxiety, and brings on a need to escape the situation. This makes it difficult for the individual to communicate.
There are many safe and relaxing scenes within our system, which can help to calm the effects of sensory overload. This includes calming meadows, dark candle-lit scenes, as well as underwater scenes where you children can relax and interact with the fish.
Our candle-lit scene was recently used by a school to inform the children that one of their classmates had sadly passed away. The scene helped the children to really focus on what they were being told, and created a calming atmosphere.
As well as helping to reduce the effects of sensory overload, immersive spaces also encourage creativity – for example in our interactive scenes, where children can draw on the walls and interact with fun colours and shapes.
Scenes such as this are perfect for enhancing hand to eye coordination and dexterity skills – skills that those with special educational needs may need extra assistance with. From an analysis of immersive technology’s use within education, improvements are found in visual observation, psychomotor skills, and emotional control. (Zheng, 2020)
Immersive spaces play a huge role in shifting how we use technology to help support those on the autistic spectrum to connect, communicate and navigate. Plus, it can help those without the condition learn more about it. (Rogers, 2019)
When used in a mainstream school with both neurotypical pupils as well as pupils with special educational needs, immersive spaces can enhance children’s empathy and understanding.
Organisations like Britain’s National Autistic Society have developed first-person videos that simulate sensory overload. Videos such as these help neurotypical people to understand and experience the anxiety and panic caused by sensory overload. This can help children without the condition to empathise with their peers. (Smith, 2021)
The examples discussed in this article show the amazing possibilities of immersive spaces, both as an educational tool, as well as for strengthening an array of life skills.
Immersive spaces provide a fun, unique and engaging alternative to traditional learning, as they ensure that all students have the opportunity to get involved with a range of experiences.
Immersive Reality opens up a whole new world of sensory experiences, from travelling around the world, to outer space, as well as interacting with exotic animals and taking part in exciting collaborative experiences.
Pupils can grasp information much more easily when they are able to visualise concepts that were previously only available through a textbook.
The environments simulate a person’s physical presence, and can help those with disabilities expand their knowledge and skills in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. This allows them to engage in activities relatively free from the limitations imposed by their disability.
It’s also a space where pupils can go to self regulate, calm down, and return to class with a new sense of self awareness and control. The possibilities are endless!
Experts believe that immersive technology has great potential in changing the educational landscape in the decades to come. (Zheng, 2020) If immersive technologies continue to grow in popularity, it will make a huge difference to the world, making important contributions to the way that those with disabilities and special educational needs feel presented.
To find out more about our Immersive Reality spaces, visit our website – www.immersivereality.co.uk
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