The University of Hawaii (UH) at Mānoa has expanded access to its virtual reality public speaking lab.

The lab, managed by the Center for Communicating Scientific Information in the Communicology Program, uses technology that allows the user to practice speeches and receive immediate feedback. Previously, the lab was only available to a small group of researchers. With the expansion, all students, faculty, and staff can use the lab.

“A virtual reality setup gives you a kind of blend of both worlds,” said Amy Ebesu Hubbard, UH Mānoa communicology professor and project leader. “It gives you an opportunity to practice, but also gives you a way of playing it like a game to improve your score, so that’s why it’s a really awesome tool to be able to bring to the university and have people experience it.”

Funding for the lab, which opened in the fall of 2022, came from a $3.99 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The grant was awarded to researchers at UH Mānoa and Iowa State University to develop a genome engineering toolkit that plant breeders can use to speed the generation of resilient crops adapted to a changing environment. A portion of the grant was used to construct the VR lab to help researchers practice their communication skills and disseminate their project information to a wider audience.

“It’s one of our missions at the university, obtaining extramural funds so that we can improve the lives of everyone, not just at the university. We hope that the things that we teach in our classes, the experiences that they have, the tools that they use can then help them out in the community and have broader sorts of impacts,” Hubbard said. “With the science communication portion of this grant, it’s how do we communicate better the kind of work that we do here that oftentimes can be technical, it can be esoteric, into ways that people can better understand and can use in the future.”

Before using the lab, users undergo a training session led by the student research assistant. Then, the user will select a setting, consisting of either an open prompt or a guided prompt with a specific question to address. Prior to their speech, they choose the type of audience environment, which ranges from polite to “hostile.” Afterwards, the program immediately delivers feedback, ranging from eye contact to hand gestures.

“It’s very valuable,” said Jay Stout, a UH Mānoa communicology lecturer focused on public speaking. “Often what we see in public speaking is that a lot of students suffer from anxiety so having an opportunity for them to practice and go through the motions of a speech without a live audience just yet, is really beneficial for them. Additionally, a lot of the feedback they get is really beneficial in terms of improving and enhancing their delivery for presentations.”

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs