Zeeko, an Irish EdTech start-up, today announced that it has secured just over €100,000 in funding through the Horizon 2020 SME Innovation Associate Programme. The company is using the funding to launch a new research project, initially involving school children in Ireland, to evaluate the side effects of virtual reality (VR) technology on children’s health.

Zeeko, which was founded in 2013 by Joe Kenny, works with parents and children to promote a healthy balance for children using screen devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets, laptops) and the internet. The company, headquartered at NovaUCD, the Centre for New Ventures and Entrepreneurs at University College Dublin, is an Enterprise Ireland high-potential start-up (HPSU) company.

Well-known among gamers, no matter what age, the adoption of VR has rapidly reached different sectors, other than entertainment, such as professional training and clinical treatments. Due to the affordable costs of VR hardware and the availability of latest generation software that supports a vivid sensorial immersion in 3D-animated worlds, this technology is increasing in popularity with children.

To date, a relatively small number of studies have been conducted on VR involving children. Some of these studies, mainly conducted in the USA, have shown that VR can efficiently support a child’s learning, thanks to an immersive sensorial experience that enhances engagement and information retention. Others have shown that VR can be employed to treat children’s emotional and relational problems such as depression and anxiety.

This research project will recruit a group of teachers, parents and children, aged 10 to 12 years, through primary schools in Ireland, to participate in an ethnographic study. The study will be carried out both in schools and in home environments using innovative techniques previously tested for the study of children’s use of digital devices.

Children’s activities with VR will be video recorded in different everyday life scenarios, e.g. lessons at school, completing homework, leisure time, etc. The recordings will then be discussed with the children to explore their subjective experiences (e.g. what they liked and did not like or would like to improve). Parents and teachers will also be involved in group discussions and interviews to examine their opinions, interests and concerns about the potential of VR as an educational tool.

The research project will be led by Dr Marina Everri, a social psychologist who has recently been appointed as Head of Research at Zeeko. Dr Everri has worked as a researcher and family psychotherapist in academia and in organisations, in Italy and in the UK, and joins Zeeko from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Dr Marina Everri, Head of Research, Zeeko said, “In reality very little is known about the impact of VR on body, cognition, and social relations, especially during a child’s development.”

“More research, such as the research we are about to commence, is needed to understand the interplay of children’s individual characteristics, their relational and cultural context, and the opportunities and challenges offered by VR technology. This will be done by examining VR side effects in the areas of education, environment behaviour, empathy and health directly involving children, their families and teachers at each stage of the research process. This will allow us to find the best solutions for children, their families and teachers.”

Joe Kenny, CEO, Founder, Zeeko said, “We plan to complete this research project in Ireland by September 2018 and our plan is to thereafter expand the project to the UK and Italy as well as other European countries. The aim of the project is to identify side effects of VR technology and to create an innovative solution to any nascent problems identified with VR. This complements our plan to develop a new educational platform to support children’s critical thinking and discovery of solutions to risky online situations.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 739807.

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