Summer break a chance to help people with autism

A student venture developing virtual reality technology to help people with autism has received funding to bring the concept to life over summer.

Socius hopes to create specialist simulations for VR headsets to help people with autism better navigate social and professional situations.

This month they were thrilled to secure a $5000 grant from Edified (an Australasian education consultancy), awarded to only four promising projects in Australia and New Zealand with the potential to improve education in specific communities.

This means Socius can purchase the vital equipment needed to test their simulations, such as 360 degree cameras and VR headsets.

Founding member Anzel Singh says some people with autism often struggle with social interaction within everyday life situations such as job interviews.

“It occurred to us that there were few support systems available and that technology has a lot of potential to make the social skill learning process easier,” he says.

“Simulations within VR headsets offer an excellent environment for people with autism to practice social skills, such as having a conversation with a stranger, in a non-judgemental space.”

We want to be sure the VR system we produce is safe, inclusive and an effortless and positive experience for the user

Anzel Singh Socius

The venture was formed by University of Auckland students Anzel, Sarah Mwashomah and Weilian Du at last year’s Summer Lab. Summer Lab is a six week ideas accelerator run by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship during the University summer holidays.

Since then Socius has been developing the concept and bringing new talent on to the team. They also became finalists in a sustainable innovation competition and were flown all-expenses paid to Barcelona to pitch their idea at influential tech start-up event, 4YFN.

The start-up now has eight people working voluntarily on the technology part-time with students from bioengineering, health psychology, and biological sciences joining the team, as well as a history student with autism spectrum disorder and a virtual reality tutor.

The original founders completed their degrees this year but will continue to see the venture through.

“By bringing together all of these new skill sets and perspectives to the team we hope to create a product that truly meets the needs of people with autism,” Anzel says.

Socius will be testing a new platform for producing mixed reality over summer. They hope exploration of this platform will allow them to make simulations more easily and ensure that meaningful modules are simple to understand and interact with.

They are also looking for software developers, more virtual and augmented reality enthusiasts and passionate people to join the team.

“We're still researching how we want our simulations to be and which platform is best for utilisation and accessibility. We also aim to talk to as many people as we can with autism spectrum disorder. We want to be sure the VR system we produce is safe, inclusive and an effortless and positive experience for the user,” Anzel says.

“We're all excited to be working on this technology and to be making something we truly believe can help other people.”

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