We were delighted to have Sunday’s front page Savannah Morning News story about our volunteer Teri Yarbrow, Professor of virtual realty at SCAD, and her exciting work with our patients.. Here is the link, or read the full story below. Our thanks to writer Betty Derby for capturing the concepts so well.
Chris Shields just turned 16. His mother says it’s a miracle he’s alive, since he was born not breathing and without a pulse. A severe case of cerebral palsy keeps him in a wheelchair and limits every physical thing he does. He depends on supplemental oxygen to breathe and requires constant care.
But last week, Chris went swimming with whales.
Chris’s reality is harsh, always has been, always will be. A faith community and a loving family eases the way for him. And last week, Chris got to sample an alternate reality — virtual reality that immersed him in a world he could never otherwise experience. Thanks to an innovative partnership between Hospice Savannah and a Savannah College of Art and Design professor and her students, Chris and other people like him can experience, in a different yet surprisingly convincing version, things that are well beyond their physical capabilities.
Teri Yarbrow is a professor of virtual reality and digital media at SCAD, as well as president and creative director of a company called Magika (magika.com), a far-reaching design company whose laurels include an Emmy. She’s got another title on her business card as well, one she clearly takes very seriously – VR evangelist.
“VR and immersive reality can change people’s lives,” she said. “Augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality — all of these are marking a big impact in things like hospital spaces and doctors’ offices.”
For examples, she cites a VR program available to pediatricians where children in a VR fantasy setting don’t notice the pain of injections. Similar pain distractions (“If you believe you are swimming underwater, the brain doesn’t believe another reality.”) are being used with sickle cell anemia patients and others who experience chronic pain. On the purely clinical side, she said, VR incorporates an individual’s MRI results and other information to allow neurosurgeons to “practice” an individual surgery before the first incision is made.
If Yarbrow’s name sounds familiar to you, you’re remembering her popular and extended-run show at the Jepson Center for the Arts, where she incorporated VR into a surreal light display called “Radiance” where patrons experience a shower of light.
In her evangelist role, Yarbrow approached Hospice Savannah, the only nonprofit hospice in the area, to explore what VR could do for patients there. She found an answer quickly in the form of a hospice patient who had always wanted to skydive. This patient wanted to mark this item off her “bucket list,” but she was already too frail to withstand the physical act. Enter Yarbrow and her VR headset. The professor scoured the internet for available VR footage, eliminated the more terrifying and thrill-seeking material (always a big item on the internet), and selected some serene skydiving footage. The patient strapped on the VR headset, known as a head-mounted display, and had a just-short-of-real skydive.
The initial trial worked so well, Hospice Savannah will shortly hold a workshop for its staff members to introduce them to the technology and its capabilities.
If you live in a household with a gadget-friendly budget and a taste for technology, you can pick up a VR headset anywhere from Google at $99 to the sky’s-the-limit versions. This will enable you to recreate the experiences described so far — underwater scenes, skydiving, etc. — using internet resources. But what if a patient’s bucket list included personalized, individual actions — attending a granddaughter’s wedding, walking through a cemetery to locate a specific ancestor’s grave, visiting the specific farm where that person had grown up? Enter Yarbrow’s students and their plans for a start-up company that can do just that.
“We are using the technology to create experiences for bedridden patients,” said Monica Clarke, who just graduated from SCAD.
“We want to get there first and be the pioneers in this,” said Mateo Parra, her business partner.
The two have created a company they are calling Seventh Heaven, a name chosen, Clarke explained, because it means “extreme happiness.” Its product will be the specific, individualized VR experiences that are beyond the physical reach of Seventh Heaven’s clients.
When Parra spent the Christmas holidays with his family back home in Colombia, he crafted a special gift for his grandmother, who has been in a wheelchair for 30 years. “I told her, ‘As a Christmas gift, I’m going to take you to Paris!’” And he did just that, along with stops in a floating village in Thailand and a walk through the streets of Istanbul.
Clarke and Parra, who also just graduated, plan to remain in Savannah and try to find funding to get Seventh Heaven off the ground. The technology needs are fairly simple — aside from the head-mounted display device, there’s a 360-degree camera that exists in various models and price points, including the GoPro devices so familiar from extreme sports. Add an audio component. From there, it’s a software-heavy process. The real expense would come in filming the actual personalized experiences.
If you haven’t already encountered VR somewhere — video gaming is one likely entry point — you soon will. In the past year, SCAD inaugurated its BFA degree in immersive reality. Yarbrow sees the field poised to take off, in both frivolous and serious directions. It’s already a common tool in real estate sales; look for the opportunity soon to test drive a car virtually.
“I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is look at what developed overnight. It’s happening that fast,” said Yarbrow.
(Pictured above: Teri lets writer Betty experience VR prior to her visit to Chris’ home)