Virtual Reality, Design Thinking, and How to React to a Bear Attack

By Santiago Juyo, Center for Economic Development Rural Entrepreneurship VISTA

Elina Zheleva adds comments to a whiteboard during the Design Dash

Elina Zheleva adds comments to a whiteboard during the Design Dash

Virtual reality (VR) technology is developing rapidly; with applications in entertainment, medicine, education and much more, it is expected to become a $40 billion industry by 2020. The Innovation Dash, held as part of the Anchorage Museum’s Design Week, combined this exciting new technology with the growing focus on the design thinking approach to problem solving. It was my first time attending an innovation dash, or a design thinking event in general. I knew that the day I was attending would be focused on VR, which I knew little about, but otherwise had no idea of what to expect. While I was excited to learn more about VR, my lack of previous knowledge on the subject made me question whether I would be able to usefully contribute anything to the event.

I am glad I didn’t let my slight hesitation keep me from attending. Attendees were assigned teams and asked to think about how VR might be applied to solve challenges related to training and education. Despite the varying levels of knowledge about VR and design thinking amongst participants, each team successfully used design thinking concepts to create a potential application for VR which might enhance the usefulness of the technology. Teams came up with concepts such as using VR to provide tourists with safety training for outdoor activities during transportation to maximize activity time in a safe manner, methods to scientifically test VR’s effectiveness in educational settings to convert skeptics and using the technology to enable people on guided tours to learn more about their environment without disrupting or delaying the entire group.  

We also met the founders of a VR startup and learned about the challenges and opportunities they’d faced in their design process. Their technology, a very cool bear spray training program, allows users to experience reacting to a bear attack in a realistic way. The program demonstrated the huge potential that VR has in scenarios where physical training would be too dangerous. Scenarios like dealing with dangerous wildlife or hazardous substances, where the high stakes demand highly effective training and leave little room for error. Thanks to their program, I learned that while fast reaction is important you also need to make sure not to aim too high or too low when using bear spray. Despite a few virtual maulings, I was able to walk away with my newfound knowledge on proper bear spray usage unscathed.   

Overall, everyone in the room learned a new way of thinking and working on design issues. I enjoyed it so much that I am now looking forward to participating in more involved events similar to the innovation dash. Thank you to the organizers (Nigel Sharp, Jacqueline Summers, and Penny Gage) and facilitators (Elina Zheleva and the rest of the team) for such a great experience! Hopefully, I will be taking part in the Startup Weekend coming to Anchorage in November, and I have a whole new set of skills to apply and contribute towards that event.