Is It Possible for VR to Shift Autistic Children to the Real World?
The founder of tech start-up Floreo - Vijay Ravindran has always been enchanted with tech. At Amazon, he managed the team that built and started Amazon Prime. Later, he joined The Washington Post as a chief digital officer, wherein, in 2013, he advised Donald E Graham on the newspaper sale to his ex-boss, Jeff Bezos.
By late 2015, Ravindran was winding down his time at the company; however, his main focus was his 6-year-old son, who was undergoing autism therapy. At the same time, Ravindran was experimenting with a VR headset when his son asked to try it out. After spending 30 minutes leveraging the headset in Google Street View, the child went to his playroom and began acting out what he had done in VR.
Virtual Reality Lessons with Floreo System
Like any other autistic kid, Ravindran's son struggled with pretend play and other social skills. However, his son's potential to translate his VR experience to the real world sparked an idea in Ravindran. A year later, he started a firm called Floreo, building VR lessons designed to aid behavioral therapists, special educators, speech therapists, and parents who work with autistic children.
The Floreo system needs an iPhone version 7 or later, a VR headset, a low-end model that costs $15-30, and an iPad. The price of the program is approximately $50/month. Floreo is currently operating to enable insurance reimbursement and has approved Medicaid in four states.
A child masters the headset and navigates the VR lessons while the coach monitors and interacts with the kid through the iPad. The lessons cover scenarios such as visiting the aquarium or going to the grocery store. Most tasks involve teaching autistic children, who may struggle to interpret nonverbal signs to body language.
In 2017, Floreo secured a $2Mn fast-track grant from the National Institutes of Health. The organization first tests whether autism-affected kids will tolerate VR headsets and then conducts a random control trial to test the technique's usefulness in aiding autistic individuals in interacting with the police. Clinicians who leveraged the Floreo system say the VR environment makes it seamless for kids to focus on the skill taught in the lessons, unlike in the actual world where they might be intimidated by sensory stimuli.