When the doctor sends parents home with their newborn child, it is not a moment of triumph or glee. It is a time of abject panic. Scarier, in a sense, than the delivery itself. “What are these doctors doing?!?” you wonder to yourself in a mental shout. “Don’t they know that I have no clue how to keep this small, helpless thing whom I love more than anything alive? HOW THE HELL DO I SWADDLE AGAIN?!? I JUST FORGOT HOW TO SWADDLE!”
You picture a 20/20 special with your face on it, Nancy Grace’s dramatic intro in which she shows pictures of you from high school, and then, incarcerated today for negligence or simply extreme stupidity.
And I only say all this, knowing I probably sound a little crazy, so that you understand why what I’m about to say isn’t so crazy. If I could do it all over again, before having my bundle of joy, I would put on a big, silly VR headset, and try Real Baby-Real Family, a virtual reality app that simulates a crying baby you must soothe. Well, not a crying baby. Specifically it’s your crying baby. Which, trust me, makes all the difference when it’s 3 a.m., you haven’t slept in a day, and it’s all on you.
Developed by researchers from Japan’s Kanagawa Institute of Technology collaborating with the Fujitsu Social Science Laboratory, the HTC Vive app places a tracking module onto a doll. You hold the doll, and in VR it comes to life in your arms. The effect begins with the face, which is actually generated from a cross between you and your partner’s faces, de-aged to that of a newborn. Accurate? Probably not! But by including features you know, that otherwise anonymous baby becomes something you might recognize more as an extension of yourself. “According to our hypothesis, creating a believable baby resembling the subjects will make them more emotionally invested with the experience,” the researchers write.
But the immersion isn’t just visual, it’s visceral, too. You hear the baby crying, and it appears to actually vibrate in concert with these cries, as if they’re resonating from the child. To soothe the crying, you must learn how to parent. You can sway, offer a hug, feed the child a bottle, or even pat him on the back to help get out a burp. These specifics are still in development. “Currently the project is being refined according to feedback received during public exhibitions . . . [the] inclusion of changing diaper being strongly desired due to the importance it played in raising infants,” the team writes. Indeed. I’d add that swaddling and dealing with spit-up would be handy, too. Heck, researchers could even add infant CPR training and save most paranoid parents half a day of classes learning, and then forgetting, all of it.
Now, I’m not naive enough to think that Real Baby-Real Family would have removed the butterflies of taking my son home for the first time. And with all its mechanical complexity, it’s certainly not a system that has any promise to scale to most parents in the near future (for now, it appears to only be at the research stage). But given that VR is being used in clinical settings already, like to help people such as burn survivors deal with extreme pain, it seems reasonable to assume that we would one day use the most immersive medium on the planet to mentally prep for one of the most trying times of adulthood. And once we get that teenager simulator down, maybe researchers can finish this baby one, too.