By Lindsey Konkel

What if you could experience life in early America, embody a different gender or race, or even swim through the polluted sea like a fish? How would these encounters change the way you thought about yourself, our history, or the world around you?

These are the enticing possibilities of virtual reality.

The idea of virtual reality—technology that can replicate real or imaginary spaces or experiences—has inhabited science fiction since the 1930s. Yet recent advances in technology and big investments from tech tycoons mean virtual reality may be closer than we think.

“Pretty soon we’re going to live in a world where everyone has the power to share and experience whole scenes as if you’re just there, right there in person,” Mark Zuckerberg said at a tech conference in Barcelona earlier this year.

Virtual Reality Emerges in NJ

Two Monmouth County tech developers are getting in on the action by working to bring virtual experiences to the mainstream.

“It’s a space that’s rich with creative possibility right now, and that makes it really exciting,” said Tammy Laverty, co-founder and executive producer at Atomic Veggie Studios in Middletown. Atomic Veggie develops multimedia content for animation, motion design, virtual reality, and other interactive experiences.

Tammy and her husband and co-founder, Matt, have partnered with the Coney Island History Project to recreate a turn-of-the-century Coney Island amusement park called Luna Park.

Luna Park exists now as a modern amusement park, but in the virtual reality experience, users will slip on a headset and immerse themselves in antiquity—standing among old-fashioned rides, listening to the carnival barkers, and viewing the thousands of Edison light bulbs that electrified crowds when Luna Park opened in 1903.

Tammy hopes to have the virtual Luna Park ready for Coney Island museum-goers later this year.

One of the most intriguing advances in virtual reality, says Tammy, is the ability to interact with other people in a virtual space. Introducing a social element to virtual reality comes with a quandary of ethical issues and questions about the impacts of virtual experiences on real-life relationships. Yet Tammy sees great promise in the potential to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Virtual Reality for Social Good

Tammy’s Atomic Veggie Studios and another Monmouth firm—My Small Factory, out of Fair Haven—are both working on empathy and social skills programs to help children with autism experience real life situations virtually.

Kids with autism have difficulty with social interactions, in part because they have a difficult time processing the verbal and non-verbal cues—facial expressions, body language, or specific gestures—that hint at another person’s emotional state, explained Bernadette Mullen, a speech and language pathologist who has worked with kids with autism for over 25 years.

Bernadette partnered with My Small Factory owner and graphic designer Chris Dudick to create a computer program to aid social skills training for kids with autism.

In the program, groups of kids enter a virtual world where they act out social situations through avatars. The avatar allows the kids to see themselves and direct their actions from the “outside.” That’s a helpful perspective for kids with autism said Bernadette, who notes that the children don’t always choose avatars that look like themselves.

Mullen and Dudick spoke about their program, which is in 25 New Jersey school districts, at TEDxNavesink Makers.

Both creative teams believe how we interact with others in the virtual realm will become an integral component of how we construct our unique identities in the years to come. “Psychologically speaking, it’s a really powerful medium,” Tammy said.

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