Ukropina seeks to kick stereotype out of the stadium


When Conrad Ukropina drove to high school in downtown Los Angeles, he saw homeless people every day. Many are stereotyped as lazy drug addicts and alcoholics who have created their own problems.

Ukropina knows otherwise. As a Boy Scout, he helped the homeless and continued to volunteer while attending Loyola High, where he graduated cum laude and was a standout kicker.

Conrad Ukropina/Photo by Dennis Elkington
“The thing that struck me is how many people aren’t homeless by choice,” said Ukropina, a fifth-year senior at Stanford and the most accurate kicker in program history. “There is a lot of misconception. In reality, there are a lot of people that life just hits hard. Wrong place, wrong time. Things happen.”

The homeless population in the U.S. now exceeds 500,000 – more than 100,000 in California. Lost jobs, divorce or separation, family disputes, eviction and health problems are cited as significant factors.

Hoping to increase awareness, understanding, and compassion, Ukropina is pursuing a master’s degree in communication and the focus of his thesis is to create more empathy for the homeless.

He spends most days at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab on campus, where he helped Ph.D. student Fernanda Herrera develop a study last summer that utilizes Oculus goggles and a computer to create animated but real-life scenarios depicting the circumstances and daily challenges they face.

More than 600 interviews have been conducted with young people 18 and older from around the Bay Area, with a goal of 1,000 by early spring. Each participant is screened to determine their empathy level before viewing one of four tracks with the oculus, then interviewed afterward. Ukropina’s thesis will examine the changes.

“Hopefully with this study, we can use virtual reality to put people in the shoes of homeless and show them what is really happening,” said Ukropina, who earned a degree in science, technology, and society last June.

The animated scenarios are realistic, thought-provoking, powerful, and at times, uncomfortable to watch. The Oculus goggles create a third dimension effect and give viewers the feeling of being present.

“I’m often the first person showing people virtual reality and it’s a pretty new thing,” Ukropina said. “It’s really cool to see how intense people’s reactions are.”

A major goal of the project is to show the distinction between reading stories and statistics about the homeless compared to seeing how they became disparate through visualization.

“People don’t expect how immersive it is until they put on the goggles,” said Ukropina. “It’s pretty powerful. When your head moves, the screen moves with it and it feels so real. It’s just the brain tricking your senses.”

Ukropina was drawn to the project by the virtual reality element. After discussion with advisor Jeremy Bailenson, founder and chair of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Ukropina decided to incorporate it with a homeless study.

“My awareness has grown a lot,” Ukropina said. “The homeless are very underrepresented when people donate money. I hope to publish one of the first big virtual reality studies that advances the field.”

Ukropina was introduced to virtual reality by former Stanford kicker Derek Belch. While working on his master’s, Belch served as graduate assistant for Cardinal special teams coach Pete Alamar for two years. They had long discussions about how to incorporate virtual reality with football and Ukropina became the guinea pig.

“I really felt there was an opportunity for kickers to put themselves in the moment and mentally rehearse those movements,” said Alamar. “You can actually see it and imagine it.”

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