It feels like something from David Cronenburg’s The Fly. A young man stands in the middle of a room; his eyes bulge from his head, black and shiny. But this isn’t human turned insect and those aren’t eyes, although what’s happening is other-worldly. The headset the young man wears is called an Oculus, something between a scuba mask and a pair of ski goggles, but with the computing power to take you into fantastic new worlds.
This may sound like something from Silicon Valley. But right here in Nebraska, a group of 22 youths divided into 5 teams may be on the lip of the next great technological wave and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation is leading the way as part of its commitment to finding innovative solutions for the needs of Nebraska’s families.
The Oculus is the invention of Palmer Lucky, a technology he sold for $3 billion to Facebook. But it’s the potential for the worlds inside (the Metaverse) that attracted another young entrepreneur. Marcus Shingles, the co-founder of a company called Exponential Destiny, sees in the Metaverse, according to a Soul Vision Magazine interview, “an opportunity to upskill economically stressed individuals into relevant new economy careers.” That’s why he began working with students in South Los Angeles on virtual reality technology and why he founded Exponential Destiny with one of those students, Marco Vargas.
Shingles describes the moment of realizing the possibilities when he heard that his daughter, who was studying biology, wasn’t learning about cutting-edge tech in her field. As he puts it, “If my own children are having challenges with getting current science through their paid education, then I wondered what an under-resourced kid in South Los Angeles was getting.” Virtual reality and the Metaverse became then the vehicle for offering technology training to a group of students who otherwise might be left out of the lead edge of change.
The vision of Exponential Destiny is to invite young people into engaging with sustainability in designing virtual spaces for the Metaverse, and, as part of this vision, the nonprofit created in 2022 the SDG Metaverse prize, a competition based on the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, including “no poverty,” “quality education,” and “reduced inequalities.” The competition offers teams who design a virtual space based on one of the goals a chance to attend an international summit in Sweden and to receive funding for further development of their platform.
So what does this have to do with Nebraska? Shingles saw a much larger potential for Exponential Destiny than just the Los Angeles area and reached out to the National Center for Family Learning, where then-Executive Vice President Josh Cramer helped the company create a pilot program in Broward County Florida. The pilot was so successful it went national. And in 2021 Josh Cramer went westward where he became an Executive Vice President of Nebraska Children and Families Foundation.
Cramer proposed the idea of using virtual reality and Exponential Destiny to Nebraska Children programs and found interest at Beyond School Bells and Connected Youth Initiatives. He pointed out that virtual reality learners require less time to learn, are more emotionally connected to content, are more focused, and show higher learning confidence. If Nebraska Children could provide the Oculus headsets, which run as low as $299, and the basic training needed, then initiatives could offer under-resourced youths a rapidly expanding technology that he said could “inspire imagination and entrepreneurship across Nebraska.” This is where Keenan Page, Assistant Vice President of Youth and Family Economic Well-Being at Nebraska Children, began implementation of the program.
Page and his team used online announcements, social media, and road shows to invite either individuals or teams from Nebraska who wanted to create a virtual design. Each applicant had to make a pitch and present a 2-dimensional mock-up of their virtual space. Accepted projects include: two fostering designs, one called Parents Province that is a resource guide for foster parents and children, and one that is an immersive, empathy-building experience in the day of a foster child; a redlining history experience; a virtual comedy club; a Common Ground space where participants and professionals can share ideas on best services; and a Magic Classroom in which elementary students can experience the ocean environment.
The Magic Classroom group is indicative of the impact and reach this new program can have. The team consists of a group of young men, Alex Wright, Jeffrey DeCrocker, and James Hannaford, who are all part of the Central Plains Center for Services’ PALS program. The team is led by PALS coach Zach Preble. Zach attended one of the road shows that introduced the Exponential Destiny initiative and loved the Oculus experience. He knew that Alex and Jeff were avid gamers so he knocked on Alex’s door and a project was born.
Alex has an interest in sea life and said to the group, “wouldn’t it be cool if you could walk around down there and interact with different animals?” So they decided from there to build an experience based on the Magic School Bus television show, where elementary students can take a tour of ocean environments like caves, deep sea valleys, coral reefs, and more. They’d like the experience to be interactive and goal oriented so that users aren’t “just walking around endlessly.”
The project is in its early stages, but it’s clear that the team is enthusiastic both about the work and the technology. Zach describes a demo they experienced in training where they walked on Mars and said, “you felt like you were really walking on the surface of Mars.” When asked what it felt like to be in the Metaverse, the group members eagerly talked over each other. “It took a minute; it felt too real.” Jeff said. Alex added, “your brain can’t tell the difference between the real world and the virtual world.” To illustrate, Zach talked about a scuba game where the player is submerged in a shark cage. He said a shark came crashing into the cage out of nowhere, “and I fell backwards into the stairs.”
The video game aspect of the technology seems to attract the young men, but it goes beyond a love of games. Alex said, “they talked about hiring some of us at competition. I’d like this to be a career.” Zach, who is already on a career path, sees the Metaverse as a potential tool for his work. He said, for example, that he could use the Oculus to help the young people he works with learn how to buy cars or as a way to meet when inclement weather prohibits face-to-face meetings. Alex and Jeff jumped in to point out that the technology might be used for immersive therapy, say, for PTSD patients.
This is the larger potential that Josh Cramer envisions for the technology. He spoke of one way he could see the Metaverse being used for equity training, “what if you could be immersed in the Rodney King riots or speak with Emmett Till’s mother, then switch over to a conversation with a professor who could debrief you?” He adds that the Metaverse could be used for outreach to areas where local supports for families and children may be unavailable, and, he points out, we might get greater engagement in statewide work by doing so. He describes Metaverse meetings he held while at the National Center for Family Learning and how real they felt in comparison to other online meeting platforms. The Oculus, he says, could become “routine office equipment in the future.”
The future of the Metaverse in Nebraska will depend in part on investment and interest. Keenan Page says that current participants are working toward a mini-summit here in the state that will be a sort of mock trial for their projects. This will prepare them for the Exponential Destiny global convening in the summer. Page emphasizes that funding for the project is in its infancy. He’d like to turn the mini-summit into a state competition with prize money to create interest. He says the next step would be to find sponsors to fund the headsets, which run between $300 and $500, and to provide training for creating VR spaces, which is more like Power Point training then it is coding. The Magic Classroom team added that they needed “team coaches” that could help them with specifics of building virtual environments.
With the proper sponsorship and funding, Nebraska Children could be a forerunner of technology that benefits the entire state. As Cramer puts it, “the Metaverse conversation is perceived as Silicon Valley; this is a good opportunity to put ourselves in a role as innovators.” If we can build the Exponential Destiny model in the state, we can, to quote Cramer, “bring Nebraska into an international space of innovation.”
With the proper sponsorship and funding, Nebraska Children could be a forerunner of technology that benefits the entire state.
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