Building empathy through mixed reality

laurel dault
May 3rd, 2017
Article by: Laurel Dault
Building empathy through mixed reality

Jennifer Kanary Nikolova has built an innovative mixed reality tool that enables its users to gain empathy for one of the world’s most misunderstood populations. Originally designed as an artistic research project for her PhD, the tool is now growing into a social enterprise that mental health professionals are lining up to experience.

 

An artist and Class 11 THNKer, Jennifer creates “technological prosthetics for the imagination”. These prosthetics serve as conversation tools for understanding stigmatized subjects of the mind such as psychosis.

 

Creating tools for empathy

As Jennifer explores and simulates psychosis, people often ask her why anyone would want to replicate such an uncomfortable and often frightening experience. “My own personal reason for wanting to do this is that my sister-in-law, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, committed suicide. Simply put, schizophrenia could be described as a condition with vulnerability to psychosis. After her death, I was struck by the fact of how little I knew about psychosis or why she might have wanted to end her life.”

As she began her research on psychosis, Jennifer realized that in order for a person to begin to understand psychotic experiences, he or she would have to experience a simulation of the extreme mental state.

“I like to focus on taboo subjects of the mind and to create tools that help people better understand mental issues,” Jennifer explains. “The ‘how’ is by creating these creative tools of empathy.”

Building Empathy through Mixed Reality: Jennifer Kanary Nikolova

Artist and Class 11 THNKer Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) creates tools that help people better understand and empathize with those who experience mental issues.

"Everyone must experience this"

Using innovative technology, Jennifer and her organization roomforthoughts designed tools to simulate entering the mind of a person experiencing psychosis. In one, individuals walk through a labyrinth which features sensor-based walls, directional sound technology, and LED “hallucination poles”. The tools simulate what it’s like to see something “that’s there but not there”, all creating a sense that the visitor’s brain is being hacked.

What makes these projects innovative is not only the technology, but also the creative interactions and safe conversation space that the art provides. After using her tools, the resounding feedback Jennifer receives from visitors is: “I didn’t enjoy it… but everyone must experience this.”

With The Wearable, visitors use VR glasses paired with a real time camera feed to understand what it feels like to be in psychosis, to hear voices, and to see things others do not see. As users struggle with multiple realities, their sense of time, space, and self are manipulated.

Accessing the Imagination

It is this massive success that brought Jennifer to THNK. When she first designed Labyrinth Psychotica as a project for her PhD thesis, Jennifer never expected it would grow into a full-fledged business. “It has all of a sudden become a company. That was inspiring, but I’m doing something that I’ve not been trained for. I’m kind of doing it naturally, but I know I can use a lot of improvement.”

After only one module of the Creative Leadership Program, Jennifer has already felt the transformative power of THNK. “It’s really helping me to focus. The tools that I’ve been given, it’s like you have blurry eyesight and suddenly you’ve been given glasses to see properly. You see your path more clearly, you see what’s realistic. It helps me accelerate and clarify.”

The methods used in program have also reaffirmed Jennifer’s appreciation for creativity’s role in driving innovation for business and beyond. As an artist, Jennifer provides scaffolding to help individuals tap into their imagination; she has observed that the THNK toolkit plays a similar role. By offering an access point to the imagination, artists or even tools like those used in the Creative Leadership Program can facilitate or accelerate problem-solving.

Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a)
Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a)
Founder & Artistic Researcher
roomforthoughts
"THNK is really helping me to focus. The tools that I’ve been given, it’s like you have blurry eyesight and suddenly you’ve been given glasses to see properly. You see your path more clearly, you see what’s realistic. It helps me accelerate and clarify."

To discover how the Creative Leadership Program can help you innovate your own project, visit the program page or contact us at admissions@thnk.org. The next cohorts will launch in September 2017.

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