1993 VR Conference Proceedings

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A Promising Future for Applications of Virtual Reality to Special Education Best Practices

Melissa Darrow
East Carolina University, Greenville
1704 E. 6th Street
Greenville, NC 27858
(919) 757-6181; (919) 758-6499

David A. Powers
Professor and Assistive Technology Laboratory Co-Director
Department of Special Education
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 27858
(919) 757-6181; (919) 757-6179
Fax: (919) 757-4219

Obstacles to Research on Virtual Reality and Special Education

Three years ago, the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSERS) funded a project at COSMOS Corporation in Washington, DC, whose purpose was to study issues and trends affecting the use of emerging technologies in the 21st century.

Results of this project point to the necessity to carefully forecast the future utility of virtual reality technology in not only public education, but in special education in particular (Woodward, 1992). Although some applications have already reached postsecondary educational environments, practical use of virtual reality has not yet reached the K-12 environment (Randall, 1992). In an analysis of recent research and literature on virtual reality, Woodward's (1992) report highlights the dilemma that although it is only a matter of a short time (the author projects between 5 and 10 years) until this technology reaches public education, the current growth of research and development using virtual reality in public education is inadequate for predicting its best learning applications in our schools. This is a typical scenario, paralelled closely with the similar lack of informative research on the efficacy of computer-assisted instruction of the 1970's and '80's in improved learning prior to its use in public schools.

Part of the reason for lack of virtual reality research in educational settings is a lack of resources. The equipment and software necessary for conducting even the simplest of experiments with learning and its relationship to virtual reality technologies are prohibitively expensive (RB2 plus silicon Graphics IRIS computers by VPL may cost up to a quarter of a million dollars) (Fritz, 1991). Although component parts that make up systems are currently available at lower costs, special education researchers typically lack the technical expertise necessary for assembly, operation and integration of these systems (Woodward, 1992). While lack of funds for newer technologies are a source of difficulty in most school systems, in rural and remote areas, where it is difficult to pay even for the most basic of mandated special education programs, this lack of resources is amplified. For example, a recent newspaper article in eastern North Carolina describes the difficulties schools in rural areas of the state have simply keeping up with simple computer upgrades. In one rural school scenario, a printer cable is traded back and forth between two dot-matrix printers, because the school cannot afford to replace a second, malfunctioning cable. Computers available to public school students in these settings tend to be "dinosaurs" - machines that are several years old, and considered in most circles to be obsolete.

When the current expense of using virtual reality technology is coupled with the current funding limitations in public schools, it is no wonder that this procedure of research following practice (a seemingly illogical sequence of events) is again taking place as we wait for prices to drop and for equipment to become accessible for research and demonstration.

Another obstacle to using virtual reality is size and manageability. Properly equipped for the full virtual reality experience, the wearer looks like "a mime in scuba gear" (Stewart, 1992). Head and body gear, are in the present generation, restrictive, uncomfortable and bulky. Motion sickness may also be experienced by the user, as well as disorientation when used by a person with certain sensory impairments (Middleton, 1992).

Yet another difficulty in the practical use of virtual reality systems is performance quality. Virtual reality requires complex hardware and software, as well as an enormous amount of memory space. While accuracy and reliability are improving, system "bugs" continue to surface. It is a reminder that this technology is in its infancy when users report "disconcerting delays between head or hand movement and the registration of that movement on the screen (Peterson, 1992). Low image quality, and problems with modeling complex scenes are other limitations yet to be solved (Holloway, Fuchs, & Robinett, 1991).

Because of these difficulties, the seemingly immense potential of virtual reality technology for special education has yet to be realized and researched. Although computer as well as non-computer created simulations have been studied as potentially powerful learning tools, this research has not been specifically directed toward special education learning needs, and the outcomes have been inconclusive (Woodward & Carnine, 1988; Bransford, Sherwood, Vye, and Rieser, 1986; Budoff, Thormann & Gras, 1984; Ellis & Sabornie, 1986; Papert, 1980; Margalit, Weisel, & Shulman, 1987). Presumably, simulations using virtual reality will be richer and multidimensional compared to those previously researched, so the validity of directly generalizing the results of these studies to potential efficacy of virtual reality simulations is questionable.

Future Forecasting or Blind Speculation?

Wright (1990) has characterized virtual reality and other cutting edge technologies as possessing "a wealth of possibility and a dearth of direction" (p. 94). Because of the lack of available data to guide future speculations specific to special education needs relative to virtual reality technology, predictions must be based on information that is available. Three sources of information provide especially salient information for guidance of future development of virtual reality software and hardware applications: First, data from the research on virtual reality applications to other disciplines; second, information gleaned from empirical research on learning characteristics of students with special needs, and implications of these characteristics for both technology and non-technology programming; and third, specifically identified curriculum needs of students from various categories of special education that might somehow be addressed in a unique manner using virtual reality technology (Powers & Darrow, in press).

Specific suggested applications of virtual reality to special education described in this paper are based upon these sources of information, as well as group brainstorming sessions with experts in both special education and assistive technology applications. In order for more than mere speculation to take place, virtual reality technology will have to become more readily available to and more practical for the use of special education researchers.

Current Applications

Practical applications of virtual reality are under active development by a variety of agencies and disciplines. The range of applications illustrates the enormous potential for this technology to address highly varied problems and needs.

Medicine. Virtual reality is used in planning radiation treatments for cancer patients at The University of North Carolina (Stewart, 1991). Using computerized scans of a patient's anatomy viewed through virtual reality, physicians can move proposed beams around by hand and position them so that they converge most effectively on a tumor. By combining ultrasound scanners with head-mounted display units, Robinett (1991) believes that physicians will soon be able to "see directly inside of living tissue" (p. 18). With half-silvered mirrors, the display allows the wearer to see through to the real world, with images from ultrasound data optically superimposed onto the patient. Using this "x-ray vision", an obstetrician could "see the woman, feel the fetus kick beneath her hands, and see the ultrasound image of the fetus appearing to hang in space inside her belly"(p. 18).

Chemistry. At the University of North Carolina, chemists use virtual reality to "see" protein structures in three dimensions, and holding a special joystick, find ways to design new drugs that will "dock" perfectly with enzyme molecules (Brooks, 1988; Stewart, 1992).

Architecture. Architects can now "walk through" building designs before any actual construction takes place, with the aid of a treadmill and data sensors. The use can judge design features from any perspective they choose (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1990).

Interior Design. Customers in Japan may design custom kitchens and use virtual reality to see the result. Wearing goggles and a glove, they can walk through their design and actually touch "virtual appliances" (Peterson, 1992).

Military. For some time, there have been investigations among military agencies concerning use of virtual reality in personnel training, and in the design of new weapon systems. The technology is being applied to the design of tank simulators, flight simulators, and to aircraft design and repair (Lowenstein & Barbee, 1990).

Space Exploration. NASA has designed a virtual reality system which creates the illusion of flying over a Martian landscape accurately created from photographs of the planet's surface (Peterson, 1992). The Visualization for Planetary Exploration Project (also designed by NASA) employs virtual reality to allow users to explore the solar system (Ditlea, 1989). Current efforts are focusing on the use of virtual reality to prepare astronauts to live and work on orbiting space stations (Fritz, 1991) and to undertake construction and repair in a space environment (Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1990).

Robotics. One of the most practical and immediate applications for virtual reality is robotics. The use of simple, small hand movements in a DataGlove can control complex robotics equipment.

Such systems are already being used to handle hazardous materials more safely.

Virtual Reality and Special Education

What is "special" about special education? One unique quality is individualization of teaching methods and curriculum, based upon student learning needs. Although effective teaching is a component we aspire to in all types of education, special education researchers have identified several general teaching methods and characteristics that are especially helpful to students with certain types of learning needs. Additionally, students with specific vision, hearing or dual sensory impairments, as well as those who have physical disabilities, require some very specific types of training that are not generally included in the curriculum for other students.

A number of characteristics of virtual reality hold potential to enhance special education effectiveness. In many cases, these characteristics reflect strategies which have been employed in effective teaching for some time. Virtual reality simply provides a uniquely powerful means for employing them.

Modeling, Cueing, and Shaping. Virtual reality offers what may be the perfect medium for training manual tasks. The learner can literally "superimpose his [or her] hand over the hand of an expert and follow along" (Fritz, 1991, p.46). Within the virtual learning environment, the instructor can imbed various types and levels of visual, auditory, and/or haptic feedback. These can be faded over time, as the person becomes more proficient. The implications for training persons with cognitive limitations in tasks of daily living and vocational skills are substantial. Where NASA prepared astronauts to fly over Mars, we might prepare students to find their way around a virtual community that is mapped out exactly to specifications of their actual community, allowing them to experiment and make mistakes in a safe environment.

Flexibility. Virtual reality technology is enormously flexible. Virtual worlds can be designed to meet whatever specifications may be required to address the instructional needs of an individual. Virtual worlds may be constructed to include cues, prompts, reinforcers, and feedback delivered via various types of sensory stimuli. Integrated multisensory supports for learning may be utilized. Fritz (1991) imagines a beginning dancer wearing a DataSuit. As she moves with the music, she receives feedback regarding her performance from the music itself. As the dancer gets out of step, the music becomes discordant, while "correct" movements result in more consonant music.

Realism. A long-standing fundamental principle of effective special education, maximum realism in the learning environment has been difficult to accomplish. A current trend, for example, is to provide a large percentage of middle and secondary school education for students with moderate and severe mental retardation within the community and outside of the classroom. Although this is extremely effective practice, given these students' difficulty generalizing tasks from one situation to another, this instructional arrangement presents a number of logistical difficulties, including transportation, staffing, funding, liability, and so on. Another obstacle has arisen when placing a learner into a realistic environment early in training would present danger, failure, or social stigmatization. Virtual reality can offer a maximally realistic simulation, within a safe environment. Generalization should prove to be less of a difficulty for students, for, as Stewart (1991) observes, "Virtual worlds aren't pictures, they're places. You don't observe them, you experience them" (p.38). Teaching vocational and social skills to persons with cognitive limitations and to individuals with behavioral or emotional disabilities would be enhanced by the capacity to engage in early, protected practice in these highly realistic virtual worlds.

Because the motivational characteristics of many students with cognitive and emotional disabilities are severely affected by fear of failure, this technology appears to offer a safe learning haven in which they can build self-confidence.

Robotics. One of the most promising and exciting applications for virtual reality is the use of robotics for persons with physical disabilities. The DataGlove and other remote sensory input devices can be used to control robots performing a wide range of tasks for persons unable to do so for themselves.

Sensory experiences. Beyond the practical applications, some researchers speculate on the power of virtual reality to offer physically disabled persons the sensation of movement. In a technology where the flick of a finger can be a command to fly, such experiences are clearly available. Chris Allis, a representative of Autodesk, Inc., who demonstrates virtual reality products, observes that the "experience of flying is something I know now. When I'm standing on a sidewalk now, I can visualize the ground dropping away below me" (Stewart, 1991, p.40). No other technology offers the opportunity to move into a world free of the constraints normally present, and within which one may experience sensations that would otherwise be physically impossible.

It is currently possible for persons in different cities to play virtual tennis, holding real rackets and striking a shared image of a virtual tennis ball. Because, in the virtual world it is possible to define one's own laws of physics, movement of a finder, or perhaps an eye blink could control the racket. It is not difficult to imagine a person with a physical disability competing with a non-disabled challenger on even ground in such an environment.

Where else could such an event take place?

Concretion. Unique to virtual reality is the ability to make abstract concepts concrete. Parameters which normally cannot be seen, such as radiation beams or sound frequencies, can be seen, heard, or even felt in virtual worlds. Persons with mental retardation experience great difficulty in learning abstract concepts. The capacity of VIRTUAL REALITY to translate abstractions into concrete experiences promises to greatly enhance training of this population.

Stimulus control. Virtual training worlds may be designed to control extraneous stimuli. Persons with learning difficulties often experience problems with managing such stimuli using a scaffolding process, such persons might initiate training in highly simplified stimulus environments, and as proficiency is increased, move toward more complex settings. This progression through a series of environments, with progressively more stimuli added, would be most difficult under traditional training circumstances (Middleton, 1992).

Orientation and mobility. Virtual reality holds special promise for persons with sensory impairments. Schreier (1990) has speculated that "this technology could be used by visually impaired people to learn orientation and mobility or to explore a new environment without leaving a room" (p.522) and that persons with visual impairments might be able to experience the environment of a book projected inside headgear. The information presented might even be physically manipulatable.


The capacity to use technology to define powerful and unique ways for persons with disabilities to learn, communicate, move, and work is rapidly becoming an important element of special education.

Problems with cost, availability, size, transportability and integration with existing systems are present with every emerging technology. (In fact, most of these difficulties existed with the very first books.) The extent to which the problems are overcome is typically a product of the ability of eventual end users to identify viable applications. In the case of virtual reality, educators have the opportunity early in the life of this new technology to recognize one of its most important potential applications - the empowerment of persons with disabilities. As "virtual reality seeks legitimacy in practical applications" (Baily, 1990, p.91), educators should assure that the potential of this technology to serve the needs of persons with disabilities is not overlooked. Educators can respond to the apparent "wealth of possibility and dearth of direction" (Wright,1990, p.94), by striving to define possibilities for this new technology that give virtual reality a productive and useful role in special education.


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