MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There's only one, true way to know what it's like to be homeless, and that's by actually living it. But today, students at an O'ahu private school experienced what may be the closest thing to it – using virtual reality.
Stanford University's "Human Interaction Lab" is collecting the data as part of a study on homelessness. The group wants students to understand what it's like to share, as best as possible, the feelings of someone going through the chain of events that can lead to becoming homeless.
At Mid-Pacific Institute in Manoa on Wednesday afternoon, the learning experience was literally hands – and headset – on, in the immersive, interactive, first-person VR experience.
"It was kind of scary, and not just an existential way, because of the homeless thing, but literally someone is going to find and catch me," said Griffin Au, a ninth-grade student at the school.
During the experience, students use paddles with triggers to carry out choices that affect their lives. The eight-minute film is called "Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience," and premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.
"It seemed pretty realistic, like I was in a homeless person's eyes," said 9th grader Ethan Tomita.
The VR experience, for example, gives participants the experience of sitting at a desk with bills and an eviction notice on it; forces them to decide to sell precious family items to pay the rent; shows what it's like to live in a car -- and what it's like to have to sell it and wind up on the street.
At the film's conclusion, the student also hears homeless people talking about their own experiences.
"Every time they take the headset off, the look on their face is shock ... almost that normal people can become homeless," Brian Grantham, the Director of Education Technology at Mid-Pacific.
Eventually, the students end up on a virtual city bus guarding their last possesion -- a backpack -- while at the same time keeping an eye on a man known to abuse homeless people.
"Like that one moment where I turned around and noticed the guy was like super close ... that was really terrifying, because I knew that I had to keep him away," Au said.
"I think having our kids walk away with that feeling that they're not just crazy people, these are real people who have had bad things happen to them, and that's the reason why they're in the situation," Grantham added.
The students at Mid-Pacific are the first high school students in the country to go through the 8-minute virtual reality experience.