Thought Experiment — Another Industry

In my last story I explored a few ideas for a VR education application to enhance MOOCs. This third and last installment of this thought experiment is dedicated to an entirely different industry: using VR as a means of communication especially in the area of mental health, counseling and life-coaching.

Inspired by some of the interviews I’ve seen in NY Times’ VR collection, I’m envisioning an application that allows a one-to-one meeting between a client and a counselor, life coach, or mental health professional. This meeting space could be for longer sessions with a specific counselor, or access a global network for short sessions with a randomly assigned counselor. The degree of available credentials could range from professional psychologists, to life and career coaches, to ‘social support reps’ if someone is just seeking someone to talk.

The application could primarily make use of a 360 video conference between client and provider. If the client doesn’t have a 360 degree camera or wants to stay more anonymous, they could switch to a VR avatar representation. If the client prefers to chat with an avatar, the provider could toggle between 360 video and VR as well.

In a more futuristic scenario I could imagine an AR extension available through wearable contact lenses or glasses that could allow a coach (provider) to stay connected with their client during the course of a day to give advice, tips, or just learn more about their client. This is science fiction at the moment, but if displays and cameras continue to become smaller, more flexible, this may become reality one day.

Man at desk by Natasha Sinegina (Creative Commons)

Sample Persona:

Age: 48

Occupation: Draftsman, full-time employed

Name: Mike

Quote: “I have responsibilities.”

Motivation: Mike is facing a midlife crisis quickly approaching his 50s. He is not happy at work and wants a change, but he feels risk-averse and stuck because of his many responsibilities including mortgage, car payments and the kid’s college funds. He wants talk to someone but finds it difficult to make himself visit an office. He hopes that VR will help him reach out and meet someone in the comfort and privacy of his own home. To fit this into his schedule and needs better, he also hopes to meet on a regular basis for short but frequent sessions instead of few long sessions with appointments that would have to be made long in advance.

Experience level with VR: Intermediate experience with game, sports, arts, 360 media and educational VR apps. Started with Google Cardboard and Daydream, eventually upgraded to Oculus Rift.

Q: How accessible would each VR platform be to your target user in terms of price?

A full-time employed middle-aged target audience will likely be able to afford a mid-price range immersive VR setup like the Oculus Rift. If Oculus Rift and its technical requirements are out of reach because of family, college, car, mortgage or other expenses, the Oculus Go or Google Daydream, or even Cardboard would also be feasible as a viewing device.

To create a true two-way 360 video communication, the client would also need a 360 camera which can be very expensive. Some of them look affordable in the same price range as the Oculus and accessible to my target audience.

The app should also allow for a VR avatar representation on either end if the client doesn’t have a 360 camera or doesn’t want to share their real life appearance and environment.

Q: How interactive does your application need to be? For example, do I need to pick things up or could I get away with just looking at objects?

This application doesn’t have to be interactive beyond some UI features to read text, or making notes, setting reminders, etc. The primary use would be a one-on-one experience between the user and the provider or virtual companion.

In the far future AR enhanced use-case the app should allow the provider to show objects as well, but it would primarily be to simplify communication and replace text with visuals on the go, not requiring much interaction either.

Q: How realistic do your visuals need to be? For example, could I use 2D images and videos in a 3D Environment or do you need high poly 3D models.

UI elements and virtual objects don’t have to be very realistic when viewed in 360 degree mode because the primary focus is on the real-life video. In VR mode it would be desirable to create a warm and attractive environment. It doesn’t have to be hyper-realistic, but recognizable as a place of comfort. A clinical white room will not work for this application.

Q: Does my user need to feel like a participant in the experience or can they be a passive viewer? Could they be both?

This application will require them to be a participant in the experience at least using voice as a minimum means of participation. Camera, whether regular web-cam or 360 camera is optional, and active participation in the VR environment would be a plus but not required.

Q: Given the answers above, what are potential platforms you could use for your experience?

The application could work with platforms like Daydream as a limited entry-level experience. More immersive platforms like Oculus Rift could enhance the meeting experience, but AR would probably offer more benefits for this type of application in the future.

Q: How would Augmented Reality better help your experience?

AR, if wearable/accessible on the go would open many possibilities and allow a life coach to really accompany the life of the client and help them on the way. AR in the confinement of a close space (home) will probably not add very much to the experience. 360 to 360 communication is really the primary use case for this application.

Q: How could eye tracking help you better tailor your experience?

Beside making the experience more comfortable in the long-term, eye tracking could also be used to measure the user’s attention and focus and help the coach on the other side by giving them important clues.

Q: How would better Haptics improve your experience?

Since this application doesn’t require a lot of interaction, I can’t really think of anything that better haptics would improve about the experience.