1993 VR Conference Proceedings

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Uses of Networked VR to Assist People With Special Needs

Philip Smythe
BT Laboratories
Martlesham Heath
Email: philip@hfnet.bt.co.uk

Commercial Inc regulation mean that telecommunications companies must provide access to their systems and services for those users who have special needs. There are two reasons why Virtual Reality (VR) is of interest when working with this constraint.

Firstly, the field is developing devices that should make access to telecommunication services easier for this group within the next few years. Secondly, a number of mass market systems, involving networked VR, show potential to become widespread by the end of the century. Customers with special needs will require access to these services.

BT is active in the provision of communications facilities for people with special needs. This is not new, it has been over 70 years since telephone switchboards were first adapted so that they could be operated by disabled servicemen. Research investigating new possibilities has been a continual component of this effort. We have recently completed a study to examine potential applications of networked VR for customers with special needs. The aim of the work was to review the most promising areas for development, the most appropriate design techniques and the main obstacles to be overcome. This paper reports the results of our investigations and draws conclusions and recommendations.

Background Issues

BT is a UK based telecommunications company with approximately 25 million business and residential exchange lines. It is the descendent of the monopoly telephone supplier for Britain which was founded in 1896. It began as a government department and later became a nationalized industry before being privatized in 1984. From this point onwards competition was encouraged in the field of telecommunications and a government run regulator (OFTEL) was set up to promote fair competition and issue licenses for service provision. Part of the conditions listed within BT's operating license stipulate that it should provide proper network access for people with special needs.

Since it was privatized the company has run a unit called Action for Disabled Customers (ADC) as part of its Community Affairs program. This unit aims to represent the requirements of disabled and elderly people to those conducting BT's operations (approximately 6.5 million people, or 11.6% of the UK population, can be categorized as elderly or disabled -(Sandhu and Woods 1990)). ADC is controlled and advised by people from all parts of the company together with representative from specialist organizations such as the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID) and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). The scope of ADCs activities currently extends well beyond BT's mandatory license requirements for ensuring disabled access (1). The policy of giving special emphasis to customers with special needs is traditional in the company and can be traced back to the First World war when switchboards were modified so that they could be used by blinded servicemen.

The company currently offers a large range of products, services and subsidies for people with disabilities (see BT 1993 -reference 2). The aim of this is to enable or improve access to telecommunications for those with special needs. Some examples of the current range are:

ADC co-ordinates this range of products and also supports several research and development projects at BTs Laboratories in East Anglia and at various British universities. This work is necessary to identify the opportunities and problems posed by changes in the face of telecommunications technology. The following key changes can be expected in telecommunications technology and services in the near future:

The following are examples of project work being undertaken to enable people with special needs to benefit from these developments in the telecoms technology:

Why the Interest in VR?

Recently BT initiated research into potential applications of virtual reality technology for people with special needs. This might initially seem a strange decision - VR is often depicted as a futuristic concept which relies upon expensive and exotic apparatus; by contrast most products designed for those with special needs are developed against tight budgets and employ the simplest technology possible to solve problems. In fact it is not the glamorous realm of immersive VR systems which is of direct interest to us. We wish to concentrate on the new devices and technologies which emerge as spin-offs from this area instead. Just as the space race spawned pocket calculators and the cold war was responsible for the INTERNET, so VR systems, developed in both military and civilian arenas, should eventually produce a useful new set of devices and techniques at an affordable cost. In the case of VR the current pace of development is sufficiently great to start fulfilling this potential within 3 to 5 years.

VR technology is of inherent interest to those with disabilities for 4 reasons (Lanier 1992, Middleton 1992):

BT is not only interested in VR for people with special needs. It is also carrying out research to exploit this technology for commercial purposes. There are 2 primary reasons why telecommunications companies are interested in this area:

1. VR technology shows potential to enhance a range of networked activities such as tele-shopping, tele-meetings, remote diagnosis and game playing. In the short term this is likely to involve non immersive Fish tank VR in which users can interact with 3D depictions of virtual worlds displayed on a Visual Display Unit. Such devices could be inter-linked using new network links such as ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network).

2. VR can be used as a visualization technique to help make network management easier by displaying data relationships in a graphical form. BT labs are currently talking to VR suppliers and third parties about these issues and are running a number of projects to investigate and demonstrate them.

Potential Applications

Most of the applications of VR that have been proposed for people with special needs could potentially be networked. Some of them involve custom built equipment designed to enhance access and some are new types of device which are incidentally of use to people with special needs. Key applications are shown below with respect to the impairment to which they apply:

1. Vision Impairment: Technology derived from VR, such as sophisticated forms of auditory and tactile imaging, may help people with vision impairment to use popular computing systems. It could do this by providing an alternative access method for the Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) that are increasingly found on modern personal computers.

Devices which can calculate a persons position relative to fixed points and subsequently use this information to produce an auditory map of their location could help people to navigate around cities or buildings.

Vision correction devices can electronically process an image derived from a head mounted camera before delivering it to the eye. This can enable objects to be magnified, edges to be given higher contrast or important information to be delivered to unimpaired parts of the visual field. Images can be relayed to a sighted person at a remote location if necessary.

2. Hearing Impairment: Automated recognition of 3D gestures, such as deaf sign language, can be used to aid communication by providing translations from gesture to speech or vice versa. Speech can be represented as gesture or text; other sounds can be represented graphically.

Video images of people gesturing can be converted into cartoon form before being transmitted over a relatively low bandwidth link. By removing unnecessary information from the signal the remaining data can be displayed with higher resolution.

3. Motor Impairment: Biometric control devices can be used to detect nervous impulses and take specified action in response to certain patterns. Often impulses can be detected even when the limb or organ to which they are directed no longer functions. In such cases the impulses can be used to control prosthetic sensing or control devices.

Proposed architectural designs of buildings and other spaces can be tested out on users of wheelchairs to see how well they meet their requirements. This can be done using immersive VR systems which can simulate reach distances and viewing angles. Such systems can help to reduce the chances of building environments which are unsuitable for wheelchair use for example.

Virtual environments could be used to aid physiotherapy in areas such as the teaching of balance skills, throwing and catching and so on.

4. Mental Impairment: People with learning difficulties can be helped by virtual worlds which can remove complexity in initial stages of learning and which can pair new abstract concepts (such as written words) with realistic representations of the real world objects or events they represent.

VR environments can be combined with knowledge based systems to help those who have problems with cognitive tasks such as remembering events and names. Personalized æagentsÆ can guide people in the areas where they are weakest.

What Next? - Developing Applications

The potential applications listed above vary substantially in their technical difficulty and in the degree to which they are suitable for providing access to telecommunication services. This section elaborates upon those which we believe are most promising as telecommunications applications.

Several problems must be overcome before a VR based application can be made available. The first (and most vital) step is to check that the proposed application would be of genuine use to those for whom it is intended. It is very hard for a designer with normal vision to have sufficient empathy and insight to design for a person who is totally blind for example. The practical way to find out what is needed is to gather a group of target users together, suggest some potential ideas to them and listen to their opinions. Low commercial success of devices such as the Nintendo æPowergloveÆ can be attributed to a tendency to put the capability of technology before the requirements of users. This is an expensive mistake to make!!

At this early stage a body of relevant basic Human Factors and technical research would be of great use. This does not yet exist for many aspects of VR. The sort of information which would be particularly useful includes the following:

Having isolated some viable applications the next stage is to produce demonstrators to illustrate them. A good demonstrator can help to generate interest and support from its target users as well as from potential developers and manufacturers. It can also be used as a prototype upon which initial user trials can be conducted. Both cost constraints and the wide variety of skills that are required make it desirable that demonstrators are produced by interdisciplinary working. Only if the demonstrated concept looks promising is it worth continuing with further stages such as larger scale trials and production.

The following applications concepts have potential for development as technology demonstrators in the near future:

1. Relay Services of the Future

Relay services allow deaf people, who use a text telephone, to communicate with hearing telephone users via an operator. (2) One of the complaints made by relay service users is that they do not feel that their conversations are private. If automated gesture recognition and translation could be employed then this would both increase privacy levels and reduce operating costs. Translation from speech or writing into gesture would also be of great use for the pre-lingually deaf who, despite fluency in sign language, have an average reading age of 9.

There are two technical problems in this area - the first one concerns the recognition of gestural language (Kramer et al 1987, Kurosu et al 1988 for example). This could be done using either a dataglove or by the analysis of video images. The second problem is that of moving from text or voice to gesture; figure 1 shows one example of a demonstrator in this area. The main barriers to implementing a system such as this are:

These barriers are not trivial but it should be possible to borrow technology and techniques from the fields of automated voice recognition and automated translation.

2. Biometric control of telecommunications services

Studies involving the use of eye movements and neural impulses as control mechanisms have been carried out for several years. The high cost of equipment together with the difficulty in separating signals from background noise have previously made biometric control appear impractical. However, the advent of improved signal processing techniques in the last two years has started to make this technology look more attractive.

A system which enabled selection and cursor control via a biometric interface would improve access for people with motor impairments. A demonstration system involving this technology in an application such as tele-shopping or home entertainment would be interesting at this stage. The main problems are that the cost of equipment is still relatively high and that detection devices are often still too awkward or intrusive to be popular with some users.

3. Interfaces for people with visual impairments

Devices which offer binaural surround sound are steadily becoming less expensive as the cost of digital signal processing chips starts to fall. A number of institutions are currently experimenting with the use of binaural to enhance the realism of VR applications. One of the areas where the technology could have the most profound impact is with users who have low visual acuity.

Systems which could represent 2 or 3d GUIs using sound could be of great use to such individuals; such interfaces could be linked to a phone network. What is needed is a way of conveying the location of several items at once in an individuals sound space and then allowing items to be selected using a 6d controller such as a Spaceball (or by eye movement detection). Whilst such systems are feasible they are likely to require several design iterations before they can be produced to an acceptable level. An associated issue is the amount of processing power that this type of system would require; although 3d sound information could be sent down relatively low bandwidth links the amount of processing required to convolve all the information necessary in real time is likely to be quite high.


Virtual reality and telecommunications are both fields which look set to evolve and grow very rapidly between now and the end of the century. Both are of potential benefit for people with special needs. In order to fully realize these benefits there is a pressing need to carry out the following:

One of the criticisms most frequently made of VR is that it has very few genuinely useful applications for a field that generates so much attention. VR derived devices and services designed for people with special needs could provide an early opportunity for the field to shake off this image.



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