1993 VR Conference Proceedings

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Go to Table of Contents for 1993 Virtual Reality Conference 

Overview of Virtual Reality and Disabilities

Ben Delaney, Publisher and Editor
CyberEdge Journal

My role is to review the state-of-the-art of virtual reality. We will then go into how people with disabilities currently make use of a variety of assistive technologies and how virtual reality might be helpful to this population.

As the first speaker, I get to set the stage by giving you my definition of virtual reality. What you'll find over the next two days is that most of the other speakers will provide their definition as well. The definitions may be different. This is a young field and we are still finding our way.

Virtual reality is a computer-generated technology. The computer is critical. It requires 3-D models of what we call virtual worlds. By a 3-D model, we mean a computer model or a computer drawing of an object that includes its characteristics such as weight, color, density and so on. In addition, virtual reality is interactive. So virtual reality has three primary components or functions: its computer generated or mediated, it involves computer models, and it's interactive.

I want to review applications of virtual reality that are available now. Then I am going to ask you tell me how we might use virtual reality to help persons with disabilities.

The ultimate promise of virtual reality is universal accessibility for everyone. In that case, everyone will benefit - people with disabilities and people who are not disabled. But the challenge before us now is to find specific applications of VR that are valuable to people with disabilities -- not just gimmicks, but those that provide real value and real improvements to the quality of life.

I would now like to discuss some applications of VR in these areas: entertainment, training, design valuation, data visualization, and the forensics and legal field. Now you might notice the very obvious lack of disability or accessibility on that list. There is one very interesting example of wheelchair VR and we'll talk about that. But VR has yet to prove its value for people with disabilities. And that's our challenge: to find that value and translate it into practical applications.

I'll start with entertainment. There are five major entertainment systems: Legend Quest, Cybertron, Battletech, Mirage, and Fighter Town. We're going to go over these briefly and then I'll explain why I think the entertainment area is a very important part of the virtual reality spectrum.

Legend Quest is a location based system, which means that is has a location designated to do it. It is a "Dungeons and Dragons" game. It uses a system developed in England called the "Virtuality System." This slide shows you the location. As you can see, there is a picture on the wall. You've got the Virtuality System redesigned to look like hollow stumps, you've got the people in there with head-mounted displays. These people are actually playing as a team. They are all playing in the same virtual world together. The great thing about this game is that it promotes teamwork. You're not fighting the other people in there. You're on their side. Virtuality and Legend Quest are CyberEdge Journal's "Product of the Year Award Winners" and we'll be honoring them this evening.

Cybertron is a fully immersive game that puts a person inside a very interesting system. This is what's called a motion platform. In this case, you've got full motion. You can turn forward, backward, side-to-side, and so on. This gyrotron, as its called, is powered by the person who wears a head mounted display and sees things like this.

There are other simulators too. Battletech is a CAD-based simulator that also provides a team environment to play what has been up to now a war type of game. That's changing. They're introducing some new software and designs that will make this a much more universal system.

Mirage system is a two person pod in which you play various games. There is also a system called Fighter Town in which you essentially pilot a military jet simulator.

Now, why are games important? Well for one thing, there is really big money in games as anyone who has watched Nintendo or Sega can see, but there are a lot of other reasons as well. Games push the technology. Virtual reality is going to be better because of these game systems. And that means all of us will have better tools to work with and more options. It raises the awareness of the possibilities inherent in these technology because many people can experience games.

Like PC's in the late 70s and early 80s, virtual reality is in its earliest stages. The more people who have access to it and the chance to try and experiment with it, the more likely it is that we are going to see some truly revolutionary and valuable advances. Of course, the games broaden the appeal and create jobs as well as providing substantial income potential.

The next theory of virtual reality that's being applied right now is training. We have these examples: the space telescope repair mission, the virtual physics lab, West Denton School Machine shop, surgical trainer, and the ski trainer. All of these provide a lot of possibilities for helping people with disabilities in terms of adding training facilities.

The Hubble Mission is one that's being developed at the Johnson space center by NASA to train the astronauts to be able to repair the space telescope. The folks at NASA have found that there's no better way to simulate microgravity. I think we may also find that virtual reality simulates a lot of other situations such as getting around in a busy city that provide excellent training opportunities.

The virtual physics lab also developed by NASA provides physics instructions for high school students. Here's a picture inside the lab. The red ball is a pendulum that you can vary the length of. The hand is pointing to a control panel. The green balls are measuring devices that you can put anywhere in the room. And here we see the gravity sphere that allows us to change the gravity in the room positive or negative, even no gravity. So this is an example of how you can use a virtual world to learn physics. You can do physics experiments, you can change time, coefficient of friction. You can stop time so that students can learn about basic physics. A lot of these techniques can be applied to other problems.

The West Denton Shop Machine School is a application in England where they are teaching students on-the-job machine shop safety techniques. Once again, it provides the equivalent of in-shop training without danger of people cutting their finger in a milling machine or some other device. This has proved very valuable.

In the medical field we have the virtual surgical simulator as a medical training tool. It demonstrates that we can use virtual reality to train our doctors and surgeons. Medical VR is on the threshold of some pretty serious advances.

The ski trainer is developed to teach people how to ski in the shop. It includes a motion platform which is a device that allows the computer to either create or interpret motion. It tracks the position of your feet and poles. It monitors the skier's pulse and it they're getting too excited it makes the slope a little less challenging. And it will actually start appearing in ski shops in the next year or two. Its been demonstrated in Tokyo and apparently it's a lot of fun and very successful.

A design evaluation is another area where virtual reality is being used. During this conference there will be a presentation by Dr. John Trimble on "Virtual Barrier-Free Design," or "Wheelchair VR." Dr. Trimble's concept is one of my favorite applications. In fact, he also will receive a CyberEdge Journal award this evening. This application was developed to determine the degree to which wheelchair-users can access buildings that do not yet exist. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is now mandated that every public building be accessible to wheelchairs. But the real problem is how do you know if you've accomplished that. In the past, architects have used two methods. There is one that I call "one size fits none" which is using metrics average height, average width, arms length and all that to build an average apartment where the average will be completely comfortable. Unfortunately, there are no average people. The second method is to build a software model of an apartment or an office or whatever and then have someone in a wheelchair roll through it and see if they can get around. This works pretty well, but its expensive and its slow. The system that Dr. Trimble and his team have developed uses a regular wheelchair on a rolling platform. It puts the wheelchair user into a virtual world and allows them to actually attempt to negotiate the building that exists at this time only in the computer's mind. There are two big advantages of this. One, you can tell right away whether it works or not. The rollers can provide resistance that can simulate ramps or stop the chair if you run into something. The second advantage is that the architect or designers can be watching from an external monitor and see how it works, in real time. It can change their point of view to be able to look down from above or to follow the wheelchair user around in order to see what that person sees through a head-mounted display. That lets the architect or designer make changes very quickly and test them again very quickly. So your iterations happen fast and cheap and you end up with a building that works. This, we feel is probably the absolute best application to help people with disabilities, and that is why Dr. Trimble and his group have received the award.

Data visualization is another promising development in the VR field. One system that we found is called "the metaphor mixer." This is a system that is used for tracking financial instruments and is actually in use to manage a $100,000,000 portfolio. On the slide being shown now, you see a grid. On one side of the grid you have markets (England, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc.) and along the other side you have commodity groups (metals, autos, electronics, etc.). So what you end up with in each square of the grid is a commodity group in a specific geographic market. For example, Hong Kong and electronics. Inside that grid, you see a number of icons which represents one particular stock or bond. Those then can change color, move, flash, turn and so on to indicate specific conditions. The reason this works so well is because people are designed for pattern recognition and acceptive processing. It is easy for us to see or comprehend something that is changing and this brings that out. The newest version of it has what we call an "intelligent agent," a voice-controlled computer that actually finds things for you.

The legal and forensic field is another one where virtual reality is starting to be applied. The London Police Department are starting to use virtual worlds to determine whether or not the stories that witnesses tell could be true. For example, they built a computer-generated world to test a theory about an automobile accident. This car is about to run into another car that is coming down the street from the left. One of the witnesses claimed to have been in the telephone booth and to have seen the whole thing. Well, as you move around in this virtual world, and step into the phone booth, you discover that the view is obscured by the logo on the side of the phone booth. This is something that would not at all be obvious otherwise. And the police departments in London and all over the world are very interested in virtual reality as a way to recreate and simulate crime scenes. That's already been done in Marin County, California. One of the great pieces of evidence that helped bring about a conviction was a computer simulation of a crime scene developed from forensic evidence. Now it wasn't really virtual reality in that it was not interactive, but it did allow the jury and the judge to see very graphically the train of events that led to the murder, and the conviction was attained.

So, what's happening in the near future? Well, the U. S. Military and NASA have effectively decided that virtual reality is the training tool of the future. A commitment has been made and funds are being allocated. The U. S. Army alone has 30,000 people whose main mission is training. This leverage will help us all develop better tools. Let's hope that the experience gained from military applications find their way also into applications that are helpful to people with disabilities.

Other trends include vicarious travel such as a visit to Ancient Greece, for example. Perhaps a virtual world may give us a way to go there. Virtual travel might be of special interest to those who have difficulty traveling because of a physical condition.

A virtual art museum has already been built. You enter and decide which works you want to see. You may want to call up works from several museums around the world and perhaps some private collections as well and view a unique museum of your own making.

I hope this overview has been helpful. As I said, I am here to learn along with you. Virtual reality includes all the senses, which means that if someone is limited in one sense, perhaps we can compensate in another. Virtual reality provides access to the computer and a new way to work with computers that should be good for everybody. So I hope we can come up with some new ideas and techniques that will make this really work for persons with disabilities. All in all, I think that you couldn't have come to a better place to learn about both the technology and the way people are finding to innovate. Thank you.

Go to previous article 
Go to next article 
Go to Table of Contents for 1993 Virtual Reality Conference 
Return to the Table of Proceedings 

Reprinted with author(s) permission. Author(s) retain copyright.