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How This Lebanese Entrepreneur is Using VR to Help Syrian Refugees See Their Country Again

Kick-started by a team of 20-year-old students who met at the MIT Media Lab, Sphyria is setting off to tackle mental health issues related to conflict in Syria - and larger challenges across the Middle East.

Who would have thought, in its early days, that VR could be used for more than games and entertainment? In the span of five days, world-shattering device Sphyria was born to prove that. The device was crafted by nine young minds who met at the MIT Media Lab in Dubai, where 30 engineers, scientists, designers and artists from all over the world came together to develop innovative urban solutions to tackle the critical ongoing challenges in the Middle East. 

A VR immersive experience that allows Syrian refugees to virtually go back home and see it as it was before it was demolished by the war, Sphyria was co-founded by Pierre Wehbe, a 20-year-old Computer and Communications engineering student from Lebanon. 

It all started off on a warm summer afternoon in August 2016, when the students were visiting the Jordanian desert. They had been tasked with focusing on creating learning experiences for underserved communities, so they decided to approach the Zaatari Refugee Camp, where children were rolling a ball over the sand-filled village. Armed with VR goggles and the will to make an impact, the entrepreneurs’ set off on a mission to enhance the refugees’ wellbeing.

Sphyria is a VR immersive experience that allows Syrian refugees virtually go back home and see it as it was before it was demolished by the war.

Wehbe says they first used the VR device to let them travel to other places in other countries, an experience that "got them emotional and enthusiastic about the use of this technology," Wehbe says. Although the headsets cost less than $20, they require the use of a smartphone. But the entrepreneur noticed that, interestingly, "most of refugees had smartphones as a means to stay connected with their families they were separated from,” he says. The experience would spark plenty of ideas.

United by the passion to make a change, yet coming from a diverse range of nationalities and studies, the team included Syrian refugee Ihsan Al Hayek, who is a student at AUS (American University of Sharjah), as well MIT students Noor Eddin Amer and Gabriel Fields, Tukish VR expert Batu Aytemiz, Saudi students Saja Muzaini, Tariq Alturkestani and Mashail Bakolka, Elias Jabbe - a journalist from California - and mentored by J. Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab.

Sphyria's co-founding team working on their prototype during the MIT Media Lab event  

Ambivalent on whether to build an educational tool to help refugees’ technical skills or to take on measures to elevate their post-war emotional wellbeing, the team decided to go with the latter. “When it was time to test it for the first time, even though we were the ones who built it, we were all amazed by the product, “ Wehbe admits. “I can’t forget Ihsan’s reaction after trying it for the first time. I saw a tear in his eye; he had just seen his home, which he hadn't seen for more than seven years. This is when we knew we were on to something big.”

When asked if Wehbe consulted psychologists on the impact of the VR experience, he says that “this is a sensitive point, since we cannot predict how each individual will react after seeing his home before the war.” However, an observation Wehbe found was that younger people were more excited to use the application to learn more about a country they didn’t know, while elder people avoided experiencing the heart-breaking memories of Syria’s mesmerising beauty prior to the war.

I can’t forget Ihsan’s reaction after trying it for the first time. I saw a tear in his eye. He had just seen his home, which he hadn't seen for more than seven years. This is when we knew we were on to something big.

Wehbe pivoted Sphyria with his best friends, Jacques Saab and Edmond Rizk, back in Lebanon, calling it Sfearia, into a “cross-platform VR hub to tackle mental health issues, such as claustrophobia and public speaking,” Wehbe claims. The startup works "using a subset of computerised cognitive behavioral therapy called systematic desensitisation, a process which gradually exposes you to your fears until the point where you can face them alone," Wehbe further explains.

“Unlike Sphyria, Sfearia is for-profit, which seems to interest more venture capital firms and the people we are talking to,” he continues, “what I was thinking was for Sphyria to be a subsidiary since it tackles the mental health issues of refugees – or depression.” Through extensive research, Wehbe and his cofounders found that “around 85 percent of the population faces some sort of mild mental heath issue, which affected them in their relationships and professional life.” To avoid the cost of paying over a $100 for a therapist, or even $1,000 for a programme, Wehbe explains that Sfearia is a cost-effective and convenient solution for tackling these mental health issues.

The young entrepreneurs found that it has been proven, both clinically and scientifically, that VR is an effective medium to treat mental health issues.

Wehbe and his team have already launched a beta version of Sphyria in the market, yet removed it to enhance and optimise the graphics. As for Sfearia, Wehbe shares, "we are currently working hand in hand with the therapeutic department of AUB Medical Center to design and develop our therapeutic programs based on a revenue-share model," adding that it will hopefully be released in 2018. The young entrepreneurs have found that it has been proven - both clinically and scientifically - that VR is an effective medium and viable solution to treat mental health issues; this ground-breaking technology is no longer limited to the typical gaming and entertainment experience. Wehbe admits he is amazed with the place and people that brought Sphyria to life, saying “the MIT Media Lab was a great opportunity - it was actually the first time to witness how youngsters from the MENA region could collaborate and innovate solutions that would surpass geographical and political barriers.”

Main photo: courtesy of Pierre Wehbe.  

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