The University of Liverpool have teamed up with Draw & Code’s VR design experts to create SHELTA (Support & Help Environment for Learners to Access), a new virtual reality app designed to support the mental health of students.
SHELTA’s purpose would be to provide a platform for students to be able to book and access virtual reality based support through the means of counselling sessions with a trained professional and peer groups. Key issues facing medical students on placement include isolation, challenging work-load and long-shift patterns; SHELTA is to test anxiety as a measure of mental health and whether a virtual reality environment can be used to aid their wellbeing in the short or long term.
Meta (nee Oculus) Quest 2 was the chosen virtual headset platform, with virtual reality being the chosen medium in the hopes that the platform can take users away from their issues and allow for them to experience 1:1 tutor support, mindfulness sessions and group peer support in a soothing, serene beach environment. It was decided that the students would be asked to record their pre-placement anxiety and then throughout the trial would be asked to update their anxiety levels after each use of the app to be able to measure the results.
Draw & Code’s VR design experts got to work with a cross-discipline team from the university. Creating a meditative, tranquil experience was paramount; with an emphasis that the environment and atmosphere had to be both inviting and relaxing for the students to escape to. It was agreed that a tropical island would be the quintessential location to take the students on their mental get-away and our VR design team wasted no time in planning the key elements and design principles of the curated space.
Using Maya and Unity, the island was designed to be made up of four key spaces; onboarding area, group therapy, individual therapy and mindfulness area. The design between the different areas were to interplay throughout while maintaining a distinctiveness between sections.
The use of ambient lighting and sound was essential to optimise the environment for the university’s research goal of the app. Each area was to have its own ambient soundscape that best reflects that area and had the common aim to create a calming, immersive sound experience that utilised Unity’s spatial audio.
To maintain accessibility, a non-binary approach was employed for the avatar selection system. The overall shape and style of the characters was crafted using an abstract approach that drew on Draw & Code’s history of creating relatable, colourful humanoid characters.
SHELTA was not to be distributed in public app stores as the project would have a smaller audience of 100+ students only at this stage. To work on Oculus Quest 2, the application was to be published through Oculus’ App Lab platform. SHELTA may be in an alpha test stage but most of the users would be new to virtual reality so it was important to streamline the experience for them as much as possible.
With the island complete, the app was ready for The University of Liverpool to begin their research trial. The question that is to be answered is whether virtual technologies could be used to alleviate stress in students in their day-to-day life, by taking them elsewhere away from their worries into a virtual space.
The app allows students the option to have an alternative medium to access counselling and support sessions, whisking them away to a dreamy island world to unwind.
About the finished product, Pete Bridge, Senior Lecturer at The university of Liverpool said:
“We are delighted with the amazing tropical island designed to provide a calming environment for our students to take time out from their clinical work and engage in mindfulness. Working with the team at Draw and Code was a great experience and they brought in an amazing range of expertise to deliver architectural design for mental wellbeing, creativity for our flora and fauna and intuitive avatar and communication functionality. The final product exceeded our highest expectations and we are looking forward to testing it with our learners.”
The University of Liverpool