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Disability and Virtual Reality Technology

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  • Synopsis: Published: 2016-07-20 (Rev. 2016-11-12) - Article examines uses and benefits of Virtual Reality Technology for persons with disabilities. For further information pertaining to this article contact: Ian Langtree at Disabled World.

Definition: Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

Virtual reality - Virtual realities (VR), also known as immersive multimedia or computer simulated reality, is defined as computer technology that replicates an environment, real or imagined, and simulates a user's physical presence and environment to allow for user interaction. Virtual realities artificially create sensory experience, which can include sight, touch, hearing, and smell. The immersive environment can be similar to the real world in order to create lifelike experiences.

Augmented reality (AR) - A live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data. It is related to a more general concept called mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified by a computer. Various technologies are used in Augmented Reality rendering including optical projection systems, monitors, hand held devices, and display systems worn on the human body. As a result, the technology functions by enhancing current perception of reality.

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"...in virtual reality you can climb Everest, be an NFL player... most of us can't do that."

Imagine being a wheelchair user, putting on your VR headset, and the next moment you are flying over a mountain range. Or having a phobia and being able to face the fear under observation in a VR environment. Virtual reality is "immersive," it gives the user a "presence" and the chance to give somebody access to something that they may never see in real life.

Using current VR products like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and Playstation Virtual Reality, VR is already being used as a tool in medicine to treat phobias, reduce pain and even help doctors perform surgery. Virtual reality projects are also offering new perspectives on what it's like to experience conditions such as deafness, migraines, and depression.

The main benefits identified for disabled people are that they can engage in a range of activities in a simulator relatively free from the limitations imposed by their disability, and they can do so in safety. There is evidence that the knowledge and skills acquired by disabled individuals in simulated environments can transfer to the real world (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9195138).

"For some gamers with disabilities, virtual reality might be a godsend," said Mark Bartlet from The AbleGamers Foundation in an interview with ARC at GDC 2016. "One of the core philosophies of the AbleGamers charity is that games allow disabled people to do things that they wouldn't in real life. And that includes able-bodied people - in virtual reality you can climb Mount Everest, or be an NFL player... most of us can't do that."

HTC Vive provides the full VR experience with room-scale gameplay, precise motion tracking and natural controller gestures. Vive is brought to you by HTC and Valve
HTC Vive provides the full VR experience with room-scale gameplay, precise motion tracking and natural controller gestures. Vive is brought to you by HTC and Valve

Virtual Reality in Use Today:

  • Google Maps now offers Street View via virtual reality. And Google Business View takes people inside of restaurants, departments stores and even movie and TV sets.
  • Honor Everywhere has created VR experiences for aging or terminally ill WWII veterans so they can virtually visit war memorials.
  • There are VR systems which enable wheelchair users to navigate a virtual world, for example a busy street or shopping center, to learn how to move around and avoid obstacles in a virtual setting before putting these into practice in the real world.
  • Virtual Reality for Children with Disabilities: Technological advances, including the use of virtual reality, have contributed enormously to improving the treatment, training, and quality of life of children with disabilities. This paper (www.cybertherapy.info/ves%20in%20clinical%20psycho/McComas.doc.pdf) describes the advantages of VR for children with disabilities, how VR can minimize the effects of a disability, the role of VR in training and skills enhancement, and how social participation and the child’s quality of life may be improved through the use of VR.
  • Researchers at The University of Haifa, Israel have developed a system that features a number of scenarios designed to teach autistic children how to cross a road. Virtual reality is also used to help autistic children with social attention problems.
  • Vanderbilt VR Adaptive Driving Intervention Architecture (VADIA) virtual reality simulator is specifically designed to help teenagers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) learn to drive
  • The University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a program called BreakThru to help students with disabilities pursue STEM careers.
  • Virtual Reality is being found to be useful in testing the design of buildings for disabled access before they are built.

Virtual Reality Viewers

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard VR headset, shown assembled with an iPhone 6s in the visor slot. Google Cardboard is an inexpensive container and plastic lenses designed to turn a phone or small tablet into a VR headset.
Google Cardboard VR headset, shown assembled with an iPhone 6s in the visor slot. Google Cardboard is an inexpensive container and plastic lenses designed to turn a phone or small tablet into a VR headset.
For around $15 anyone can buy a VR cardboard headset, download a free mobile phone app, slide in the phone and explore virtual worlds from a wheelchair, bed or couch - Google Cardboard

Oculus Rift headset

Oculus Rift is a head-mounted display for VR and gaming purposes developed by Oculus VR, an American technology company that was acquired by Facebook in 2014.

HTC Vive

In 2015, Valve Corporation announced their partnership with HTC to make a VR headset capable of tracking the exact position of its user in a 4.5 by 4.5 meter area, the HTC Vive. Update Nov 12, 2016: Chinese company TPCAST has just unveiled an add-on to the HTC Vive which makes the VR headset completely wireless.

Sony Playstation Virtual Reality

The Playstation VR (Morpheus) requires a PS4 instead of a PC to run.

There are many other gaming VR headsets on the market, and in development, each with their own special abilities.

A Word of Warning

Virtual reality is fairly new technology and still faces a number of challenges, including possible motion sickness and technical matters. Users can get disoriented in a virtual environment causing balance issues, computer latency can affect simulations, head-mounted displays and input systems such as specialized gloves and boots may require specialized training to operate, and navigating the non-virtual environment (if the user is not confined to a limited area) can be dangerous without external sensory information.

However, this new technology may open creative pathways for users in ways we don't even realize yet, and for people with disabilities virtual reality might be another route to inclusion...



Related:

  1. Virtual Reality Code of Conduct & Ethical Concerns - Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz
  2. Text-Based Viewer Opens Second Life and Other Virtual Worlds to Disabled - Celene Highwater
  3. Timocco Special Needs VR Gaming - Timocco Ltd

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