VR comes to Martha’s House through connection grant

by Geoff Fox

Kids visiting Martha’s House in downtown Hancock for activities will now be able to visit places around the world in living color without ever leaving the building or Hancock.

Martha’s House was able to purchase 15 Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset and controllers with a large grant secured by Interfaith Service Coalition Director Debbie Cohill.

The new VR headset could bring in an older age group to come to Martha’s House, Cohill hopes.

People may think Martha’s House is for the younger kids, but Cohill said it’s more of a community center for all ages.

One of the best ways to get those older kids to come would be to offer the latest in technological trends.

Cohill said she’s not familiar with the latest electronics, so she brought in her nephew Rich Strong to help advise her.

About a year ago, Strong came to Cohill’s house, bringing headset “things” he wanted his aunt to see.

“Totally freaked me out!” Cohill said. “But I realized that for younger people, that was like a real thing.”

Cohill came across a grant that would allow ISC to enhance the internet service at Martha’s House, apply for funds to get the headset, iPad keyboards, Microsoft office, and offer STEM programming.

The $111,723 grant came through the State of Maryland called “Connect Maryland,” a digital inclusion grant.

Each game and app costs between $10 and $60, which is the cost per headset.

In talking to Strong, Co-hill said she has learned if someone had an iPad connected to the headset, it would allow two people per set of headset – one wearing them, the other on the iPad.

The grant was for 15 devices, but Cohill said there would be a test run to see how the facility’s internet holds up with all the devices connected.

In the grant applications, Cohill told funders there are people living in disadvantaged or low-income households who might not have the opportunity to use the VR experience because it’s so expensive.

Parameters for VR use

When it comes to safety, Cohill said Martha’s House will see what other youth centers are doing with VR headset rules.

Cohill said the age limit would be 10 and above for use of the headset. This would be not only to protect young eyes, but to ensure other safety measures and safety of the equipment.

It’s likely the center will have something for parents or guardians to sign before their kids can try some of the simulations, which can mimic real motion and activities.

Kids will also be given plenty of space around them so they don’t end up bumping into each other while wearing the headset, Cohill said.

Strong said most offerings will be more along the lines of YouTube videos and not much interaction on the headset.

“It’s 360, but you can’t really move around. It’s just a video,” he said of the YouTube experience in the headset.

One of the programs already loaded onto the headset is a plank the user can walk around.

Cohill and Strong gave The Hancock News a chance to try out the headset last Thursday.

In the headset simulations there are various different virtual settings such as on a plank above a city, superhero training, and space exploration.

Before putting on the headset, Strong set up boundaries and parameters so when in game play, there is a grid and the device can tell the wearer to stop.

There’s also handheld controllers you have to hold onto with buttons you’ll have to push in other simulations.

The headset has a speaker system where those around you can hear what’s going on in the simulation as well.

In the plank simulation, you step out of an elevator on to a wooden plank and as you walk out, you hear the board creak as you step on it.

When walking out, even though both feet are planted firmly on the floor at Martha’s House, this reporter felt like he had to carefully walk onto the plank of wood in the scene so he wouldn’t fall.

As he was trying to explain what he was seeing in the simulation, there was one moment where he felt like he was going to fall off the plank.

As you look around, you see you are very high up above the street.

Once you get your bearings, you look out and see a buses or to their vehicle in the parking lot,” she said.

Norris pointed out the parking lot can be very busy during that time and safety is the school’s main concern.

“We do not want to take a chance of students or adults getting hurt or injured,” Norris said.

The food pantry at Hancock Middle-Senior High School comes from a monthly donation from the Maryland Food Bank, which makes the food pantry possible.

The food available varies from month to month, Norris said, but people can “shop” for items they need. She said the school does ask people be mindful of others while working their way through.

If anyone in the community would like to donate to the food pantry at the school, they can contact Norris there at 301-766-8186.

helicopter, hot air balloons, birds, buildings, and, yes, the street below if you look down.

Strong did say you could fall from the plank if you stepped off the plank.

This reporter’s legs were a little on the flimsy side as he took the headset off.

There was an option called “Hero Academy” where the user can fly around as a superhero.

You can put on a “glove” on in the simulation where, as this reporter told Strong and Cohill, feels like Iron Man as you fly up alongside a building.

In the Space Station simulation, you’re the station and have to learn how to float around, grabbing onto bars and objects. You can also push things in the simulation as well.

Other interactive games include wall climbing, roller-coaster, and a shooting one, which probably won’t end up in Martha’s House, and many others.

With the space station program, Cohill said there is going to be a demonstration where a lady who makes a lot of dehydrated food would come to Martha’s House to demonstrate making “astronaut meals.”

“So the kids will come, they’ll travel the space station, and they’ll have some astronaut food,” Cohill said.

There will also be a “classroom” segment, she added.

Kids can also travel the world through lessons on Sweden, Kenya, and Australia.

Cohill said she wanted to use the learning aspect of the headset so learning can be fun.

Cohill is always looking for ideas on what could be done with the VR headset at Martha’s House with the possibility of even using it with the fire department and rescue squad as a recruitment or possibly training tool.

“We want people to be involved. We want people who may have some cultural cooking ability or something that they can bring to the table and volunteer and be a part of Martha’s House,” she said.

Cohill said she is going to reach out to other groups, such as the Lions Club, to get involved as well.

“Martha’s House is a community center. It may be owned by Interfaith, but we want the community to be here and enjoy it,” she said.

Cohill said she needs people and younger people with ideas for experiences.

“We’re real open, like totally wide open,” she said. “This can be whatever we want.”

If you have ideas for possible VR experiences for Martha’s House, you can call Cohill at 301-331-6605.

Rich Strong sets up the Meta Quest 2 headset for demonstration for The Hancock News. Interfaith Service Coalition recently got 15 headsets for Martha’s House as part of a $111,000 grant.