Virtual reality unlocking educational doors for inmates

4:26 pm on 26 November 2018

High-tech digital pioneer Ian Taylor is bringing virtual reality to Otago prison to help inmates learn to read while they fix cars.

A screenshot of the VR programme used to teach mechanical skills.

A screenshot of the VR programme used to teach mechanical skills. Photo: Supplied

It's estimated that 65 percent of people in prison need help with literacy and numeracy.

"How do we put them out into the world if they can't even read? " he said.

The Taylor Made Media managing director has extensive experience with animation and virtual reality, and wants to use it to help inmates learn.

"We built a virtual environment where you put the headset on, and you're standing in the street and there's a garage across the road," he said.

"You have to read certain signs and things on there and learn things to get the doors open.

"Then you go inside and basically you're in a garage and you work your way through and there's literacy and numeracy stuff inside."

Every six weeks or so, the VR is taken to Otago prison, where 12 inmates act as consultants - they test it out and give feedback on its development.

"The prisoner came in and he put on the headset and he looked through the headset and he said 'Hey Bro! We're out!

"It was incredible. He got this whole sense that he had left the prison to do this so the level of engagement went through the roof."

That's the whole point, according to Jimmy McLauchlan from Methodist Missions South, who teaches in prisons.

Sir Ian Taylor.

Taylor Made Media managing director Ian Taylor has extensive experience with animation and virtual reality Photo: RNZ

He approached Mr Taylor about it, he said many inmates are dyslexic and find it difficult to engage in traditional 'pen and paper' learning.

"One of the real barriers to developing their literacy and numeracy when you're dyslexic is being presented with a wall of text," he said.

"More workbooks and more text books and just more reminders of maybe what did not work for you the first time.

"This is an opportunity to reset things."

The project is being privately funded, with Hawke's Bay iwi Ngāti Kahungunu committing to investing at least $2 million.

Rūnanga chair Ngahiwi Tomoana said being illiterate can lead to a downhill spiral for people.

"I see numeracy and literacy being the number handbrake on Māori development," he said.

"We jumped on it in order to be part of this new technology revolution that will not only help our people in prison, but could help numeracy and literacy right through kura."

Intensive literacy and numeracy support was received by 1443 inmates from 2016 to 2017.

The new tool has impressed Minister of Corrections Kelvin Davis.

"As soon as you put on the headset you are in a workshop and there's a car in front of you," he said.

"And it comes apart - like the nuts come off the wheel and the wheel slides out - it's like you're there.

"It is just unlimited what can be done."

Mr Taylor said if it was successful in prisons, there was no reason why virtual reality couldn't be used more widely.

"What happens if we start before they go to prisons?

"What if we can bring it in to educating people, a different way of educating especially young Māori, Pasifika, Pākehā kids who are in that lower decile area, who are struggling with learning?"

The final product was about a year away and Otago University was working with the team to assess how effective it would be.

If it takes off, they will look to create virtual hairdressing, forestry and cheffing.