3D learning program developed in Hong Kong to help intellectually disabled children

Interactive program developed by City University is proving an effective learning tool

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 6:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 May, 2015, 11:13am

Man Wai-ho may be severely intellectually disabled, but he can steer a flying carpet - at least in 3D virtual reality using a program that recognises body gestures.

The Interactive Sensory Program for Affective Learning (InSPAL) was developed three years ago specifically to help students like Man with severe intellectual disabilities.

It was created by a multidisciplinary team led by Horace Ip Ho-shing, professor of computer science at City University and director of its AIMtech Centre.

In collaboration with the Mental Health Association of Hong Kong - Cornwall School, and supported by the Quality Education Fund, Ip's team has been training students to expand their learning abilities and extend attention spans.

It took a year to develop InSPAL for Cornwall School, followed by 18 months of psycho-educational training sessions for almost 100 severely intellectually disabled students.

In a dark room at the school where 21-year-old Man was once a student, he is wearing 3D glasses and facing a screen as he rides the flying carpet overlooking lush green mountains under a sunny sky. An actual carpet is rolled out for him to stand on. He can steer the carpet to the left by leaning left.

Man has stayed on at the school as a peer supporter in the classroom. He smiles when asked what his favourite scenario is. He says it is the one on classroom safety, where he can identify that a cup of hot water and a switchblade are dangerous items he should not touch.

While these skills may seem simple enough for the average person, it is a challenge to instil it in students with a very low intelligence quotient (IQ) level. But through the virtual reality program, the pupils at Cornwall School can have so much fun that they are learning without even realising it. "We hope that through virtual reality, they can transfer the skills they've learned to their classrooms," says Ip.

Ip's team worked closely with Cornwall School to come up with learning objectives taking into account the students' varying levels of cognitive and physical capabilities. They created eight learning scenarios, which include the flying carpet and classroom safety. Others include walking on rocks to cross a river, raising their hands to pop bubbles to learn the link between cause and effect, and experiencing the four seasons to become aware of their surroundings.

In the training sessions, the students take turns to don the 3D glasses and enter the virtual reality world. Each student is trained by a professional art therapist, who is able to accommodate their emotional needs as they encounter challenges in their learning.

Ip's team developed a gesture recognition software specifically for the students. Ip says they often also have a physical handicap that hinders their mobility, making it difficult for existing software to be able to detect their movement.

"One issue was that the existing software would only be able to detect the movement of people who are standing up, and a lot of the pupils are wheelchair-bound," says Ip. One scenario takes the students under the sea where they can pop bubbles by raising their hands, and gifts will fall out. "We thought, why stop at 3D effects? Let's do 4D as well," says Ip.

So the team installed a bubble-making machine right under the screen. For the four-seasons scenario, a fragrance is released to simulate spring and artificial snow is released to simulate snow.

"The pupils had to learn to raise their hands all the way and then put them back down to qualify as a complete action," says Ip. Being able to raise their hands clearly is important. "When they have to go to the bathroom during class they will need to raise their hands. But if they are not able to do it clearly, then the teacher may miss it."

Ip's idea of working with severely intellectually disabled youngsters came from his earlier experience of developing a 3D virtual reality environment to help children deal with the effects of abuse. Around the world, virtual reality-based therapy has become common in helping patients overcome issues such as trauma, phobias or social stress.

We hope that through virtual reality, they can transfer the skills they've learned to their classrooms
Professor Horace Ip, City University

Cornwall School is an aided special school in Sham Shui Po for children with intellectual disability. It has about 100 pupils, some of whom board at the school. Principal Choi Lui-yin recalls the challenges when the program was introduced.

"Even getting the pupils to keep their 3D glasses on was a difficult feat," says Choi. "We tried tying the glasses to a string to keep the glasses on the pupils and even getting them to wear the glasses as a hat."

While the training sessions have ended, Cornwall School staff have now been trained to use InSPAL.

Choi says students can become quite passive and require a lot of support from teachers. "But when they are playing, they naturally became more active," says Choi.

And the students had so much fun engaging in the learning scenarios that their attention spans have also improved. One of the most successful cases was of a seven-year-old boy who was initially frightened by the virtual reality environment and was not open to new things. Initially, he sat as far back from the screen as possible but gradually began to sit closer. After a month of weekly sessions, he was participating in the scenarios and raising his hand more frequently in the classroom.

After the training sessions, the students returned to the classroom with their teacher, who followed up on what they had learned.

Teachers were asked to assess the students by counting how many times each one engaged in activities, and found that the pupils were raising their hands more often, participating more and needed less help in moving around.

The next project for Ip's team is developing InSPAL to help children with autism. "With autistic children studying in mainstream schools, parents and teachers are under immense pressure, especially as they transition from kindergarten to primary school," says Ip.

His team plans to use InSPAL to train the autistic pupils to comply with social rules, apply social skills to new situations and learn to identify facial expressions and give the appropriate response. Eleven primary schools have already expressed interest in participating in the sessions.