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Disability and Virtual Reality Technology

Outline: Article examines uses and benefits of Virtual Reality Technology for persons with disabilities.

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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.

A person using virtual reality equipment is able to "look around" the artificial world, move around in it, and interact with virtual features or items.

The "virtual" effect is commonly created by VR headsets consisting of a head-mounted display with a small screen in front of the eyes - but can also be created through specially designed rooms with multiple large viewing screens.

Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Immersive

What is 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.

What is Augmented Reality?

Augmented Reality (AR) is 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.

What is Immersive?

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

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.

Google Cardboard is a virtual reality (VR) platform developed by Google for use with a head mount for a smartphone. Named for its fold-out cardboard viewer, the platform is intended as a low-cost system to encourage interest and development in VR applications.

Users can either build their own viewer from simple, low-cost components using specifications published by Google, or purchase a pre-manufactured one.

To use the platform, users run Cardboard-compatible applications on their phone, place the phone into the back of the viewer, and view content through the lenses.

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

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 for $2 billion.

The Rift has two Pentile OLED displays, 1080×1200 resolution per eye, a 90Hz refresh rate, and 110° field of view.

The device also features rotational and positional tracking, and integrated headphones that provide a 3D audio effect.

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive is a virtual reality headset developed by HTC and Valve Corporation.

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.

The headset uses "room scale" tracking technology, allowing the user to move in 3D space and use motion-tracked handheld controllers to interact with the environment.

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.

Immerse yourself in extraordinary new worlds, put yourself at the center of an incredible gaming universe and experience a new way to play with PlayStation VR.

With over 150 games the PlayStation®VR headset was engineered to be balanced, comfortable, and adjustable. It's designed to feel like it's not there - keeping you free from distraction as you explore new gaming worlds.

The PlayStation VR system can output a picture to both the PlayStation VR headset and a television simultaneously, with the television either mirroring the picture displayed on the headset, or displaying a separate image for competitive or cooperative gameplay.

PlayStation VR works with either the standard DualShock 4 controller or the PlayStation Move controllers.

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...

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