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A new, innovative virtual reality (VR) lab is giving University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa students, faculty and staff a one-of-a-kind opportunity to polish their public speaking skills.

The lab, managed by the Center for Communicating Scientific Information in the Communicology Program, utilizes state-of-the-art technology that allows the user to practice speeches and receive immediate feedback. It opened in fall 2022 and users have been raving about the new resource.

person with two joysticks speaking with a headset
Undergraduate research assistant Lauren Masquida practices a speech in the VR 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.”

Paige Barnett is a sophomore communicology major and an undergraduate research assistant for the project. She said getting faculty and students accustomed to the lab has been a great experience.

“In a lot of my classes, I have group projects that I present and presentations I do myself so it’s really cool being able to just go in there, practice, see my analytics and improve in any way that I can,” Barnett said. “The feedback that we’ve received has been really great. Everyone who’s done it has wanted to either come again or just has had nothing but praise.”

Extramural funding

Funding for the VR lab was provided through the National Science Foundation (NSF). The $3.99-million grant was awarded in 2021 to researchers at UH Mānoa and Iowa State University to develop an efficient, robust 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. The grant runs until the end of 2025.

Part of the grant was included in UH’s record extramural funding of $505 million in fiscal year 2022. Extramural funding is external investments from the federal government, industry and non-profit organizations that support research and academic activities conducted by university faculty and staff.

“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.”

How it works

computer generated audience sitting at desks clapping
Snapshot of the computer generated audience clapping following the speech.

When someone arrives for their appointment, they go through a quick training session by the student research assistant. 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.”

person with a headset and two joysticks

Kyle Perkins, a UH Mānoa communicology MA graduate and lecturer, who coached the fall 2022 commencement student speaker added, “When I was witnessing the commencement speaker, which is very nerve-wracking to speak in front of that many people, she did such a great job because it helped her with confidence. The VR allowed her to have that exposure to a lot of people without actually having that many people in-person to practice around.”

Currently, the center is prioritizing sessions to researchers working with the NSF grant. Other students, faculty and staff across the Mānoa campus are also invited to sign up for a session on a space available basis. For more information and to sign up for a session, visit the VR lab website.

In the future, Hubbard hopes to see the lab expand into several rooms full of VR headsets and separate consulting rooms where people can receive communication skills and public speaking coaching. She would like to open the lab up to the public, including K-12 students, as a resource for public speaking activities, such as testifying at the state legislature or commemorating a loved one.

The Communicology Program is housed in the School of Communication and Information in the College of Social Sciences.

—By Marc Arakaki

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