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Stepping into virtual reality as a parent brings adventure and unknowns

A recently released study by a Stanford group explored whether VR could help children learn from their homes during the pandemic

An Oculus Quest 2 headset. (Theresa Vargas /TWP)

I worked out with comedian Tiffany Haddish the other day.

We stood in Egypt, surrounded by nothing but sand and pyramids.

As we warmed up, I faced her and mirrored her movements. When she lifted a knee, I lifted a knee. When she stretched out an arm, I stretched out an arm. In the 20 minutes we had together, she tossed out a few jokes, but mostly she offered encouragement.

That was her purpose, after all — not to sweat with me but to get me sweating as I jabbed and ducked, practicing boxing moves I had learned just days earlier. She wasn’t real, but my movements were.

There is no way to work out in virtual reality without looking ridiculous. A weighty pair of goggles sits on your head and no one around you can see the objects you’re hitting with precision. They only see you swiping at air, and if you haven’t marked your boundaries correctly, bumping into furniture.

I could hear my kids giggling in the background. They pulled me back into reality for a moment, but if they were laughing, that meant they were fine and I could get back to smashing the black and white balls hurtling at me.

Oculus Quest fitness app Supernatural serves up inspiring workouts in VR

I don’t fall into the typical VR user demographics, which according to one study, tend to be males between the ages of 16 and 35. But throughout my life, I’ve enjoyed playing video games and as a mom, I’ve found there’s no better ego boost than seeing awe on your children’s faces when you beat them at Mario Kart or Super Smash Bros.

So, when a family member gave me an Oculus Quest 2 headset, I didn’t leave it sitting in the box. I decided to explore the virtual world with my eager 9-year-old son.

The first time we used the headset, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if we would feel nauseated within five minutes or if time would pass quickly as we visited places the pandemic had kept us from seeing. I didn’t know if it would feel like an escape from pandemic parenting or a disorienting extension of it.

The first thing I learned was this: Exploring virtual reality as a parent is much different from using it without children in mind. In many ways it feels like stepping off a paved path onto one that hasn’t yet been cleared of greenery and marked with signs that provide clear guidance.

The science is still developing when it comes to children using VR and several major manufacturers of headsets have set the recommended age of use at 12 and older. That doesn’t mean, though, that children across the country aren’t slipping on those headsets every day. VR experts and parents know they are and that based on sales predictions many more will be in the next few years. They also know that some interesting things, both good and uncertain, can happen when children use the technology.

I can tell you about my own family’s experience, but I am not a VR expert. So, I reached out to someone who is. Jeremy Bailenson is the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which builds and studies virtual spaces.

One of the most recent studies to come out of the lab is titled “Accessibility of Educational Virtual Reality for Children during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The study involved surveying and interviewing the parents and legal guardians of 411 children who ranged in age from 0 to 17 and had at least one VR headset at home. The mean age of the children ended up being 9.5.

The research started at the beginning of the pandemic and grew out of Bailenson’s own experience.

“In March 2020, I’m a parent and I had an 8- and a 6-year-old at the time,” he says. “My 6-year-old didn’t even know how to type, didn’t even know how to use a computer, and yet she was having to do online school all day. Think about just how bonkers that is.”

It occurred to Bailenson that he could use his VR expertise to look for virtual experiences that would build on what his children were learning in school.

“And what I found as a parent very quickly,” he says, “was that there was almost no educational content that, A, was at the quality where it was going to really add value, and B, that plugged into the curriculum.”

The study, he says, aimed to explore on a broader level the question he had asked himself about his own children: “How can this be used for education?”

In interviews conducted as part of the study, parents described using VR to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, the moon and places where they had spent real-life vacations. One parent told of using it to let a child who was learning Russian travel virtually to Moscow.

One of the most powerful examples of its use for education came from a mom of teenage daughters. She spoke about how the Anne Frank House VR experience resonated with her children at a time when the pandemic had forced people to be stuck in their homes.

“My daughter couldn’t believe how small the house is that Anne Frank was in and she’s like, ‘Mom, you can’t go anywhere,’” reads the study. The daughter spent a considerable amount of time in the virtual house and read all the material. Her mom, when interviewed afterward, said the family ended that experience with gratitude for the home they had.

Bailenson says his general rule for VR is that it should be used for “quick, intense, aha experiences” and for no longer than 30 minutes at a time. The study also notes that research has found that young children, such as 6- and 7-year-olds, are prone to remember events in VR as if they happened in real life and that more research is needed to assess the effects of VR on children.

My 7-year-old tried on the headset and within minutes decided he did not like the way it made him feel.

My 9-year-old put it on, felt fine and was easily able to distinguish the difference between real life and the realistic portrayal of it.

I don’t think VR can make up for the learning loss that has occurred among children during the pandemic — and Bailenson agreed — but I can see how when used under supervision at home, virtual experiences can lead to real discoveries and conversations that might not have occurred otherwise.

My son can spend hours lost in books or searching for insects outside. But I’ve also seen VR ignite a different type of curiosity in him. I have been careful about the privacy settings I’ve chosen, the age-appropriateness of the apps I’ve purchased and the amount of time I allow him to wear the headset. Without those precautions, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with him exploring the technology. But with them, I am enjoying, at least for now, our shared adventure.

On days that are too cold to go outside, we take turns working out on “Supernatural,” which is where I encountered Haddish that day. When we want to laugh, we fling Angry Birds at taunting pigs. And on a recent night, we stepped into the imaginary roles of photographers for National Geographic.

“I just took a photo of sea lions,” my son shouted after a few minutes. “Whoa, whoa! Emperor penguins swimming underwater. This is fun.”

He narrated the actions of several more animals before he decided to leave Antarctica.

“I’m going to a place called Machu Picchu,” he said. “Do you know where that is?”

I told him I had hiked through there when I was in college and studying in South America. When he took the headset off a few minutes later, he started asking questions: How old was I? What was the place like? What animals did I see?

Only later did it occur to me that we had gone from having a virtual adventure together to having a conversation about a real one.

Read more from Theresa Vargas