I have always loved computers and have been programming computers since the age of 10. I have always been fascinated by their potential. When I first heard about virtual reality (VR) in the early 90's my imagination ran wild dreaming of all the worlds I would create. Unfortunately, VR wasn't ready for me back then so I spent my creative energy creating multiplayer game maps for the Quake series of first person shooters and doing 3D modeling with 3D Studio Max. I continued a programming/marketing career throughout my life. It wasn't until I saw the Oculus Rift that my imagination and VR dreams were reinvigorated. I ordered a developer kit (DK2) and waited patiently. After a few months of waiting it finally arrived!
On the personal side, I have four boys ages 11 to 15 who are amazing and have taught me so much. As I watched them try virtual reality for the first time, I was amazed by how real the virtual world was to them. Their imaginations running wild as they reached out to try and touch everything. They spoke to the characters in virtual reality as if they were really there. This was really special.
In September of 2014, I was reading Reddit posts in the /r/Oculus subreddit. In case anyone reading this doesn't know about Reddit, Reddit is a forum of sorts that I use to stay up to date on the latest releases of Oculus hardware, software, and to see what other folks are doing with virtual reality. So now you know! Anyway, I came across a post from a man who was thanking the folks at Oculus and the developers of a virtual reality game.
In his post the man wrote:
"My seven-year-old has cerebral palsy (the sexiest of the palsies, of course). I got the Oculus mainly for him. I wanted to bring the world to him, because he might not be able to meet the world on its terms. Let me just say that this technology is fantastic. If any Oculus employees read this, thank you from the bottom of my heart. … It kills me when my boy wants desperately to play Xbox like his brother and sometimes cannot (due to his dystonia). This tech is so truly immersive, and so damn fun, that I'm just thankful to the creators of the Rift, and also the third-party devs making apps in their basements with no compensation."
The man also posted a video of his son playing the game demo. His son was so excited and happy, and towards the end of the video he said, "I’m winning!" It touched me so deeply. I wondered, how often does this boy in the wheelchair, who couldn't even hold an Xbox game controller in his hands, get to shout "I’m winning!" and truly mean it, feel it and smile? To the father of this child, seeing and sharing his son's excitement was overwhelming. I thought about my four boys; if any one of them were in this situation, I would do everything in my power to make sure they could experience the therapeutic power of virtual reality. I knew at that moment, this is what I needed to do. I was going to create virtual experiences designed specifically for hospital bound and mobility impaired kids.
How did VR Kids come about? How did you make VR Kids become a reality?
After my epiphany, VR Kids was born and then the real challenge began. My goal with VR Kids has always been to provide free access to therapeutic virtual reality to those who could benefit the most. VR Kids would be a nonprofit organization based in Las Vegas, NV, initially serving the Las Vegas area and if successful, reproduce the model in other cities throughout the country. It's not easy to start a nonprofit organization, but I'm very proud of the progress so far. One of my happiest moments in this process was being able to officially say, "VR Kids is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and donations are tax-deductible." (Our EIN is 47-4044627, just saying.) One step closer to helping the kids! I knew I couldn't do this alone, so I reached out to some really smart folks and explained to them what I was attempting to do. They were as excited as I was about helping kids using virtual reality technology. Currently our team consists of myself and four others.
- RJ Sampson, Executive Director + VR Programmer (that's me). I make decisions, run the day-to-day operations, and build our VR experiences.
- Amanda Eisenberg, Creative Director and Designer. Amanda designs objects for our virtual worlds, including the characters and creating their unique animations. She also does design for our brochures, business cards, website, video production assets, and more.
- Elizabeth Millsaps, Director of Operations. Elizabeth handles all items related to working with the kids. Scheduling with the parents, visiting their home or hospital, she manages all the forms and paperwork, as well as the child's VR Kids experience session itself.
- Sarah Saenz, Director of Public Affairs. Sarah works with the public. She is in charge of fundraising as well as making sure we are meeting with the folks in the communities who could assist us in achieving our vision and goals.
- Reggie Millsaps Jr., Director of Marketing Communications. Reggie manages our PR and media communications, marketing, and more.
How was 'Journey to the Big Bear Festival' created?
Our first VR experience is titled, "Journey to the Big Bear Festival". We specifically designed this experience for the Oculus Rift head mounted display and built it using the Unreal Engine.
Note: There are other posts in our blog that discuss these in much more detail. Check them out!
When you say therapeutic virtual reality, what do you mean?
The overall goal of VR Kids therapeutic virtual reality comes down to giving kids with special needs experiences they can't normally have. Our target participant spends most of their time in a bed, wheelchair, or hospital. VR is not a cure for their impairment; however we believe our virtual experiences can provide stress relief, happiness, and joy. Our experiences are designed specifically for these kids and take into account the many unique circumstances of each child.
How do parents sign up for experiences?
Parents can visit our website at www.vrkids.org and request a session. There are numerous videos on the site as well parents can watch to better understand what we do and how we do it.