VRapeutic: Developing therapy interventions for children using VR/AR
The UNICEF Innovation Fund is proud to see a portfolio member VRapeutic graduate. They’ve come a long way – from numerous product iterations to deep diving into understanding their ecosystem better and strengthening their business model. They’re now ready to collaborate at a larger scale – as they find new pathways to work with partners, investors, and the open source community
When we started our journey with the UNICEF Innovation Fund’s team in June 2020, we hadn’t imagined that after just 12 months we will be able to augment our library of VR modules by 50%, increase our traction by 75%, expand to two new markets in two continents, and introduce new products to the market of software-based rehabilitation. It was extremely demanding, but the outcome is superb.
VRapeutic develops VR modules specially tailored to instill cognitive, social, academic, and motor skills in children diagnosed with learning and neuro-developmental disorders. Beyond the confinement of therapy rooms and the limitations of conventional training methods, we empower therapists with unlimited virtual training scenarios that are otherwise impossible to realize during sessions. We also empower specialists with cutting-edge technologies to track and analyze children’s performance, and to design data-driven therapy plans.
Currently, our library addresses attention skills for children diagnosed with AD(H)D and autism, all designed based on the TOVA test and measures impulsivity, distractibility, in addition to other variables from within the VR environments. The kind of disorders we focus on affect more than 100 million children worldwide. In this sense, we see ourselves impacting millions of families around the world by disrupting how they receive their rehabilitation, in a multi-billion-dollar market, using a science-back approach and a cutting-edge technology that has ripened enough to disrupt several sectors including healthcare.
Empowered by new collaborations and partnerships with three rehabilitation centers in Egypt, Vietnam, and Canada, we are now looking forward to finishing our validation studies on a library of seven modules addressing attention skills by the end of 2021.
From a social point of view, in addition to the disorders we currently address, we have been able to enrich our VR modules with new features and our portfolio with new production lines that address other disorders, such motor disorders, and the community of special education and healthcare at large.
As a science-based scaleup, we have been looking at VRapeutic as a front-runner in a huge and ever-demanding market, which requires a sustained vision for research development. As a part of UNICEF Innovation Fund’s portfolio, we have been able to expand our research collaborations and, more importantly, our research scopes such that we highlight other aspects of benefit for VR on developmental psychology and cognitive development. One prominent example to mention here is our ongoing research collaboration with the University of Ottawa’s Childhood Cognition and Learning Lab in Canada and Cairo University’s Faculty of Physical Therapy in Egypt.
At VRapeutic, prior to prototyping, our product strategy and curriculum map determine the order in which the modules are developed. The curriculum map outlines the scope of each of our modules, and the learning outcomes associated with each module. This map is the outcome of regular brainstorming meetings between the team members as well as our advisors and collaborators. The reason behind developing our modules in a particular order is to guarantee that the library of existing modules consistently addresses/realizes a rich-enough variety of skills/sub-skills, task types, difficulty levels, environments and characters, in addition to targeting a wide age range. Once this is clear, we are ready to go for the first stage of prototyping, namely, the proof-of-concept (PoC).
In VRapeutic’s pipeline, a proof-of-concept is meant to be a fast-prototyping stage where the basic mechanics of an activity/module is developed using geometric primitives, e.g., cubes as representatives of characters and objects in the VR environment. This also involves a basic version of the user experience that highlights the main interactions between the user and the environment. This PoC is usually developed at a minimal cost, and it passes through at least two iterations of internal (team) testing, as well as testing from therapists from our network of advisors and collaborators, to make sure that the basic functionality aligns with the curriculum map.
Following the approval/modification of the PoC, our art team starts to work on a detailed storyboard. The storyboarding stage takes the form of 2D sketches using a pencil and a paper, in addition to script writing. The outcome of this stage is a visual description of each scene in the module and the sequence of events expected in that scene upon different interactions; this is in addition to the user interface (basically, the menus) in the module. With the PoC ready, iterating-on then approving the storyboard becomes the final step before starting the production of the module where we can fully invest our resources. Nevertheless, we have learned that there are some aspects in prototyping that are very specific to the scope of VRapeutic.
It is worth noting that the scope of VRapeutic makes it especially challenging to prototype with real users, since our main users are children and young adults with learning and developmental disorders. This has necessitated a vision, since we started building VRapeutic, to collaborate with a network of renowned advisors in the field who are willing to contribute their considerable experience during prototyping. Moreover, it turned out that we cannot prototype without code. Prototyping in many applications might refer to the stages a team goes through before investing time in writing code. In our case though, since we are dealing primarily with professionals from a non-technology background, it has been necessary to give them a feel of what the functionality would look like using a PoC + a storyboard. This has helped us considerably in adapting, early on, the module under development to the benefit of the flow in a typical therapy session. It has also resulted in key modifications among different versions including, for example, scene layout, performance data gathering, menus content, 3D object optimization, among others. There is another stage along the production pipeline that is as significant as prototyping on the development workflow, namely, the user/field testing.
The user/field testing usually generates an essential part of the data required for the research studies we do on our ever-growing library of modules. According to our experience, user/field testing gives a deeper level of insights compared to prototyping. For the testing that has been done on the modules included in our collaboration with UNICEF, we have acquired a treasure of lessons from curriculum design to user experience and module personalization.
Since our product revolves around rehabilitative experiences that involve real-life tasks, we have learned that, even for simple tasks, it is always favorable to develop those tasks in a modular manner. This facilitates the division of a task into sub-tasks according to the capacity of the user. We have also learned that some aspects of the rehabilitative experiences differ significantly among cultures, which has put localization as a concept on our radar, thanks to the stellar mentor, Justin Flory of UNICEF. Creating a demonstration level, e.g., a user tour/guide, is such subtle feedback that we learned through user testing that takes little more resources yet creates a better user experience. One key lesson to highlight is that users can figure out new and innovative ways of adapting a particular content to various scopes of rehabilitation, e.g., cognitive and motor rehabilitation.
For a startup working in the health-tech sector, cutting-edge research and development is in the DNA of the business.
ON BEING OPEN SOURCE
It is not an unpopular understanding that open source is at odds with profitability. What is very special about the collaboration with UNICEF through the Innovation fund is that we have been pushed throughout the 12-month program to greater limits in open-source support as well as business sustainability and profitability. Actually, we have figured out several ways where the former directly and positively impacted the latter.
Creating and maintaining open-source projects has resulted in engaging a bigger number of audiences to our various production lines. Since good documentation is a cornerstone for providing a solution under open-source license, and since it is not only about code documentation but also a well-written description of our solutions, we have benefited significantly from our GitHub page in communicating our message effectively with potential collaborators and customers from a non-technical background. This has also contributed to our discussions with potential investors after the UNICEF Innovation Fund program ended. Equally important, supporting the open-source movement has enabled us to guarantee a more robust code development process through, for example, more comprehensive test cases. So, the product and thus the business has benefited significantly on many technical fronts whether related to technology and software development or not. It is worth mentioning that the last point highlighted in user/field testing (above) is closely pertinent to open-source support since it facilitates the collective innovation of new approaches to adapt existing solutions and systems.
Although our business model has not changed over the past 12 months, the collaboration with UNICEF has facilitated the development of such a model in a way that makes it more flexible and welcoming to new opportunities. For example, participating in the Innovation Fund Program has resulted in new connections which facilitated our expansion to new markets. These new markets are particularly mature with regards to, for example, the design and the implementation of a regulatory path. Consequently, we have now come to a point where we can talk about a more solid regulatory strategy which, upon completion, will open the door to selling at scale. Indeed, being able to sell at scale in our case will facilitate the adoption of an augmented two-component business model. Specifically, we can directly target families at homes (B2B2C) based on a prescription from a therapist, in addition to addressing rehabilitation centers, private clinics, and inclusion schools (B2B) which is the current model. Moving from the B2B model to the hybrid B2b2C model is just one of the challenges we have to overcome during the next year of operation.
Challenges have been an inherent part of our journey, a characteristic of it, and we have enjoyed seeing ourselves becoming more immune and persistent, as much as we have enjoyed seeing the opportunities that come along. The various challenges of operation amidst the current pandemic are just one example of what we have been able to navigate with the support of our partners and collaborators including UNICEF. We expect this challenge to persist as long as it impacts the pace of our large-scale validation studies. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, we expect a challenge in adopting a hybrid business model, particularly in designing the fully supervised at-home user experience. Furthermore, we see a necessity to keep working on the scalability of the VR technology such that our solution becomes even more VR headset agnostic in addition to being operable in rural areas where low-quality internet connection exists.
NEXT SET OF GOALS
Our team is pleased to share that VRapeutic’s was able to extend the collaboration with UNICEF beyond the 12-month program. Particularly, we got nominated to the Digital Public Good (DPG) Program which represents a new level of partnership with the renowned global organization through which we can get introduced to new markets and high-profile partnerships. Currently we are collaborating with the UNICEF Country Office in Vietnam on a validation study that will probably be followed by a wider adoption of our solutions countrywide.
Within the next 2-3 quarters, we expect to focus on three main milestones, namely, the completion of our validation studies (one of them is the one taking place in Vietnam), the completion of our ongoing fundraising round which has just started in September 2021, and finally getting our medical device license—a cornerstone of our regulatory strategy. We will keep looking for renowned partners in the healthcare sector that are interested in harnessing the rehabilitative power of VR technology through VRapeutic’s solutions. We are also specially interested to partner with health insurance companies that would help us democratize the adoption of cutting-edge technology for an inspiring social impact.