In January 2019, Immerse UK teamed up with the Cornerstone Partnership to hold an event to explore the opportunities that VR/AR technologies and experiences present in public services, particularly social care and mental health. The KTN’s Tom Campbell was in attendance, and was inspired to share his thoughts on the potential of immersive technologies to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.

The growth and potential of immersive experiences and technologies have been well demonstrated over the last two years. While still commonly associated with the entertainment and games sector, AR/VR content and services are being developed in a wide range of sectors, from education and training through to manufacturing, transport and construction. More recently, there has been increased interest in areas such as social care, health promotion, counselling and mental health services, in which the capacity to generate empathy, trust and understanding are all crucial.

Given the richness and emotional power of the best immersive experiences, it should be no surprise that professionals in these sectors are taking such an interest. It is four years since artist and director Chris Milk described virtual reality as the ‘ultimate empathy machine’, with the potential to radically enhance our understanding and insight into different human perspectives and experiences.

A concrete instance of how immersive experiences are addressing deep social issues and personal challenges was demonstrated at a recent event organised by Immerse UK and the Cornerstone Partnership. Over the past five years, the number of children looked after by local authorities has increased rapidly, outstripping the supply of foster carers and approved adoptive families. There are particular shortages when it comes to carers of children and young people with complex needs and challenging behaviour. In response to this, Cornerstone has worked with social care professionals to develop a virtual reality programme that seeks to improve the life chances of children in care and children who have experienced attachment-related trauma. Through a series of immersive experiences, a range of professionals (including social workers, mental health workers, teachers and judges), as well as adopters and fosters carers are able to participate in a VR environment from the perspective of a vulnerable child.

When it comes to social and healthcare interventions, establishing the efficacy and evidence base is vital, particularly with highly innovative and untested technologies. In this case, Cornerstone worked with an independent evaluator, Alma Economics to capture the outcomes from trialling the VR programme. Initial results have been impressive, with 90% of participants (drawn from social care professions as well as foster parents) agreeing that, in providing a window into trauma and children’s emotions, the experience can help to attract the right type of adopters and foster carers. More than half the participants felt that it provided them with skills and knowledge that will enable quicker decision-making, while 40% said that it helped them gain insights and develop skills that would lead to better decisions. The programme therefore has the potential to significantly reduce the rate of adoption breakdown, a highly distressing and not uncommon outcome.

Helen Costa, Chief Executive of Cornerstone Partnership and an adoptive mother, is well aware of the challenges. As she says,

“The outcomes for children who have been in care are significantly worse than their peers across all key areas: education, health, career, rough-sleeping and mental health. The reasons for that are complex but it is fundamentally about how we as adults and professionals get children on to the right path, quickly and with support, empathy and true understanding. The fact that our VR tool has shown exactly this impact in such a short space of time is beyond all our hopes and expectations.”