Assisting refugees through technology – @theU

A team of University of Utah students led by Assistant Professor Milad Mozari from the division Multi-Disciplinary Design (MDD) at the College of Architecture and Planning is working in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to explore new virtual reality technology and bringing it home to help the refugee community in their resettlement process in Utah.

U of U student at MIT Museum

Bridging the Gap is the name of the project that started three years ago and has involved more than 70 U of U students. At MIT, the team is working with a series of virtual reality experiences to enrich the immersive videos catered for newly arrived refugees in Salt Lake City, addressing resettlement and the digital literacy gaps within the community.

“MIT has a long history of collaboration with tech companies, and they have a pulse on VR tech and production coming out,” explained Mozari. “The University of Utah has its own history with people such as Ivan Sutherland and current research in HCI (Human Computer Interaction) across campus. So, this project is not necessarily out of the research norm for our university. But it’s important to make emerging tech be in conversation with new audiences aside from those in an academic or enterprise settings.”

Traveling to Boston

Students Campeon Ramirez and Sam Bari traveled to MIT, where professor Mozari is working as a fellow at the MIT OpenDocumentaryLab experimenting with the practical use of emerging tech through the lens of the project. The objective for the team is to gain a better understanding of using Virtual Reality (VR) with the International Rescue Committee (IRC in Salt Lake City) clients while finding new ways to connect with collaborators and bring ideas for involvement to Utah.

“During a project in my junior year, I learned about the IRC and their work,” said Ramirez. “When the team was searching for an intern that could join the VR project, I was more than excited to join them. I was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, so I can somewhat relate to the culture shock of moving to Utah.”

The visit to the institute, organized by Srushti Kamat, MIT graduate student and researcher at MIT Co-Creation Studio and Open Documentary Lab was intended to make some of this emerging technology tangible.

“There is a significant need to include the voices of displaced youth in immersive technological development so that both their scientific and creative potentials are reached. New technology is a doorway. More than that, it is a possibility. Hopefully, visits like these make that possibility more tangible, even if it’s a small step,” said Kamat.

A refugee using one of the VR prototypes

In their time in Cambridge, the U of U team met with the nonprofit organization Narratio at MIT, which works with displaced youth. During the collaborative day, at the Immersion Lab, students were introduced to a suite of technologies that researchers use at MIT; an experience that helped them connect the physical and virtual.

“We’re currently assessing notions of cognitive load within VR,” said Mozari. “We’re evaluating newer headsets alongside an analysis in Salt Lake City to find the balance of education and therapeutics in VR. Practically speaking, we are researching live eye tracking within the headsets, as well as mixed method analysis through surveys that are done after watching the experiences as part of the off-boarding process.”

For Bari, being in this project allows him to use his personal experience, reflecting on his family’s challenges after arriving in the United States.

“I was able to provide feedback and suggestions on many parts throughout the making of this project,” Bari said. “I think this project has a bright future, making refugees’ lives easier by helping them with things like the hardships of paying at a grocery store, using self-paying cashiers, or even checking in to a doctor’s appointment.”

This year, the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library provided 16 headsets to the program, which are being used at Cultural Orientation meetings at the IRC. The team has an “open and involved” approach to getting others engaged in the project, and where they hope the tech industry of Salt Lake City becomes more community oriented.

“Taking some of the burdens off of refugees and the communities they are joining is important,” says Ramirez. “Giving people the knowledge and tools they need to access resources in a new country helps set them up for success, which in turn benefits the communities they are becoming a part of.”

If you are interested in supporting the program, please contact Assistant Professor Milad Mozari.

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