Coding, robotics, virtual reality (VR)—to most of us, these are mostly foreign concepts, or they exist solely in the realm of science fiction. But to a group of 5th graders in Belmont, Massachusetts, who participate in the First Lego League (FLL)—and to Justin T. Baker, MD, PhD, scientific director of McLean Hospital’s Institute for Technology in Psychiatry—these are natural concepts and very likely solutions to age-old human problems.
Last month, the Belmont FLL team took a field trip to McLean Hospital to visit with Baker and learn how he is envisioning the use of VR to help patients with psychiatric disorders cope with their disorders and the stress of spending time in a psychiatric hospital.
Why were the students interested in this? One of the 3 core components of the FLL is to identify a problem in the specific project identified in the league’s yearly competition and to research a solution to that problem. This year’s project involves long-duration space travel. The students decided that a problem astronauts would face on this long journey would be loneliness. Their solution was to develop VR footage that would allow the astronauts to feel like they were with friends and family.
Baker was the right person to ask about using technology to address loneliness. Not only was he able to explain the effects of long-term isolation on mood and mental clarity, he explained an important concept to the kids that got them thinking. The concept is called “uncanny valley,” and the idea is that people’s brains are clever enough to know when something is real or fake. If something tries to be real but isn’t quite right, the person viewing it will have an unpleasant feeling. On the flip side, people are perfectly happy viewing unrealistic, digital representations of people (e.g., avatars).
“Experiences like these have a huge impact on the kids,” said Sterling Crockett, the Belmont team’s head coach and a father of one of the team members. “Justin made a really cool comment yesterday when he explained that he was only really introduced to VR about a year ago, but that he had a really good experience, saw a lot of potential in the technology, and has grabbed on to it since then. Well, the whole [FLL] team also just had a really good experience, and you never know where that might lead or who that might inspire, who might tell their class about the uncanny valley, who might find long-term fascination in emotional health. The possibilities are endless.”
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