1994 VR Conference Proceedings

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The Virtual Wheelchair: Overcoming Real World Obstacles with Cyberspace Technology

By: Larry Kuhn
1187 Gross Street
Arcata, CA 95521
Phone: 707/839-8755
FAX: 707/839-3426

Background: The Virtual Wheelchair was selected as an abstract for the proceedings of the 2nd Annual Conference on Cyberspace in 1991 held at the University of California, Santa Cruz. At that time, the original idea was to create 'virtual centers' where users could simulate journeys that they wished to make in the physical world. Since the first publication, advancements in portable computing technology, coupled with digital video and portable CD-ROM drives have brought this vision closer to a real world application. A prototype system is currently under development.




Current development and research has been focused on providing a prototype system that is based on affordable existing technology. The scope of the GIS system in the current prototype is limited, however, the potential for enlarging the scale of the GIS is excellent. The system "Access2000 (TM)" produced by InfoSilo is based on the following hardware and software configurations:



Software-Proprietary software for accessing GIS on CD-ROM and organizing transit/destination details. The software also provides phone and modem control. Requires Apple System 7.0.1 or greater, 8 MB of RAM, 12 MB of disk space, and Apple QuickTime (TM) system extension.

Constraints: Following is a list of design goals/constraints for prototype development.

Scope of GIS: Current GIS is a prototype that contains text, and visual information on three key areas of the city of Arcata, CA, USA.

  1. Humboldt State University
  2. Arcata City Hall
  3. Downtown Arcata Plaza

General System Features: The Access2000 (TM) Virtual Wheelchair System is built around the interaction of four main components;

User Profile which lets the system know valuable information about the abilities of the user such as input device, and user defined limits for grade slope, and number of blocks the grade is acceptable. Other features let the user select routes based on manual or power chairs. Users may select to have text spoken to them, and set volume levels.

Transit Profile is an interactive component that offers the user a suggested path based on user requirements and the user defined origin and destination. Origin and destination points may be selected by either clicking text locations in a list, or hot spots on a map.

Transit Simulator offers users the ability to explore the path of travel before a user attempts the actual physical journey. The system provides information in the form of text, digitized movies of critical access areas, and digitized still photos. The path the system recommends is based on information given by a user in the User Profile.

Access Profile provides detailed access information about areas that the user wishes to visit. Access Profiles includes the name of the location (business, city office, University), address, phone/fax, digitized photo, and detailed access information (elevator location, ramps, etc.) Users may call locations listed with the fax/modem and cellular telephone company hookup.

Real-Time interactions: The Access2000 (TM) system provides users with unique abilities to use the system in real-time in the field to obtain timely updates to information that may be vital to their ability to navigate the physical route users desire. This real-time feedback can take place in a number of ways;

Future Trends:

VE's provide tremendous access potential and advantages to the mobility impaired individual. Current trends in micro-engineering techniques may allow for the development of more compact, integrated systems to operate a Virtual Wheelchair.

Such systems might include:

Developer Notes from the Trenches:

To achieve the goal of making the world a more accessible place with the Virtual Wheelchair, there are several items that are key to current and future developments. These are worth noting;

Intentional Interface Design. Any software can be evaluated with a simple equation; functionality of the program x the interface = value of the product. With this in mind, development of Access2000 has taken great care to use interface design strategies that are appropriate to the product. The system software is flexible and achieves some of its greatest power by knowing what the User capabilities are. The system does not presume many user capabilities, and allows users to create and save their own individual profiles that are easily modifiable. A case in point might be that a person is tired and does not feel that they wish to navigate routes over 1% for over a one block. On a good day, the same person may wish to try a route that is a maximum grade of 1.5% over 3 blocks. The interface allows the user to adapt their profile as needed, with the system responding to the constraints. Another area of the importance in utilizing fundamental interface design concepts is to break historical imperative when the rule does not apply or becomes a constraint rather than a benefit. An example of this is in button design. Apple interface guidelines are very specific about size and placement of buttons in user interface design. However, when designing products that need to take into account limited range of motion, and various neuromuscular aptitudes, designing the interface with larger target style buttons have proven to be more useful. Consistency is important, but in the development of Access2000, larger button styles have been embraced for major user functions in the User Profile, Transit Profile, Help System, and Access Profile components.

GIS development: must be supported at the community, city, and state level to ensure that if standards are adopted for information cataloging, they may be easily incorporated into development and delivery systems. Technical issues of modeling appropriate information for an access tool such as this require approaching problems from new directions. Although there are many fine GIS systems available commercially, offering users a sense of being there is difficult. Tagging specific areas with access information is just beginning to be incorporated in many city and county planning agencies using GIS systems. Some GIS systems incorporate picture data as part of the database component. Support for digital video as a database component for GIS systems is offered in some commercial packages, but remains a mystery to many who use GIS systems. The importance of having this data type is centered around the need to add spatiality to two dimensional information. Numbers can be useful for evaluating aspects such as slope, and length, however offering digital video as a data type lets the user have that sense of 'being there' in a way that still pictures and other data types cannot provide.

Telephone company: A telecommunications infrastructure is crucial for delivery of the real-time component of the Virtual Wheelchair. Access to cellular, and switched phone networks is essential.

User Testing: It is a great advantage to the overall usability of any system to have the end user participate in the design process. The Virtual Wheelchair is no exception. It is crucial to have a member of the design team who is mobility impaired to offer meaningful, and useful feedback throughout the design process.

DWIW, DWIN, and DIWS: Do What I Want, Do What I Need, and Do It With Style.

Do What I Mean: Careful crafting of interface components can reduce the need for further 'intelligence' to be built into the system. Advancements in voice recognition systems coupled with the system's knowledge of the user (through their own User Profile) will offer added depth to the system. This is a goal of the system design after it develops from a prototype to production model.

Do What I Need: This level of system response is another crucial goal of the Access2000 system in the production cycle. At the center of Do What I Need is making the system responsive to multiple destinations, user time constraints, user defined priority items. It is important for the system to have the ability to suggest strategies for managing complex routes with multiple destinations. A scenario might be; the system knows certain preferences of a user, and suggests an access routes to them, however, with multiple destinations (a shopping trip) the system might suggest a better time management strategy based on its knowledge of what the user sees as priority tasks, normal business hours for selected destinations, and estimates of time needed to perform tasks (specific example: if it is 11:50 AM the system might suggest that you stop at the Post Office before the lunch hour rush instead of doing grocery shopping, even though groceries were a priority item over the Post Office specified by the user.)

Do It With Style: Having a system that is flexible and responsive to user abilities is one thing. Having it interact with user needs and abilities is even better. Performing those actions with style is a separate but equally important issue. As individuals, we all have unique personalities, certain ways we like having things done, and certain ways of doing things that make sense to us and that are expressions of our own individual style. A long term goal of the system is to design features to allow a user to incorporate their own style of doing things. It is partially a software configuration issue (can buttons be autoscaled to my preferred size?) Another example would be to have text scaled at point size that satisfies the visual acuity style of the user.

What is important information?

At the center of all information management issues is the question of "what is important information?" As the American's with Disabilities Act becomes more fully implemented over time, access information will be easier to come by. At the current time, much of it has to be gathered. The advantage of the current state of affairs is that developers can decide what should be important information. For example, many local municipalities that are using GIS systems are beginning to incorporate existing (and planned) access items like curb cuts into their GIS systems and maps. Most city planners only incorporate access information the way that they would mark the location of a telephone pole. There is one here, and here and over there. If you are in a wheelchair, what is important information is a little deeper; it is helpful to know if the ramp is semi curved dish style, or if the pavement has been brought up to the curb level.

This is why using digital video in addition to other information such as slope and distance is important. It allows that virtual sense of being there before you actually have to take the journey in the physical world. Taking the movie footage for this project has all been done from the perspective of a person in a wheelchair. Shooting footage from the wheelchair is important information, and reflects to the user that sense of being there as they would see things from their own perspective. Combining digital video, still images and text (optionally spoken to user) can provide a rich set of access tools. Access information that is presented in text form needs to reflect important information too. Text needs to include information about door width, if a door is automatic, power assisted, etc. Although digital video can capture many aspects of what it is like to go to a specific location, important information in text form can serve an equally useful purpose. It is also critical to understand the various flavors of wheelchair users. Some issues that are not as important to manual chair users are crucial to electric chair users, and vice versa. Asking questions about "what is important information, and how do I communicate it?" up front in the design process and understanding the needs and abilities of users usually leads to the correct answers.


  1. Blake, Tyler, Tutorial on User Interface Design: California State University, Northridge, presented at ACM Conference on Computer Human Interaction, Austin TX, USA, 1989.
  2. Bolt, Richard The Human Interface: Where people and machines meet, Lifetime Learning Publications, N.Y. N.Y, 1984.
  3. Tutorial on Multi-Modal Interfaces: Richard Bolt, M.I.T. Media Lab, presented at: ACM Conference on Computer Human Interaction, Toronto, Canada, 1987.
  4. Hubley Craig, Craig Hubley & Associates, Toronto, Canada: personal conversations on the future of cyberspace technologies, 1990.
  5. Mayhew, Deborah, Deborah Mayhew and Associates, Managing the Design of the User, presented at: ACM Conference on Computer Human Interaction, New Orleans, LA, USA, 1991.
  6. Miller, James, R., MCC, Neeches, Robert, USC Information Sciences Institute, Intelligent Interfaces. Presented at: ACM Conference on Computer Human Interaction, Washington D.C., USA, 1988.
  7. Nelson, Michael, A. Rapid Prototyping for User Interface Design, presented at: ACM Conference on Computer Human Interaction, Washington D.C., USA, 1988.

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