Virtual Reality (VR) technology is becoming increasingly commonplace and affordable for consumers around the globe. One industry that has been quick to adopt VR technology is healthcare. Some medical practitioners are using it to induce pain relief for their patients. More specifically, research has found that calming, almost zen-like landscapes are successful distractions that help with pain management. Another plus point: immersive VR worlds are a preferred alternative to opioids. In other cases, some medical schools are using VR to simulate complex surgical procedures for surgeons-in-training. While these applications of virtual reality technology are fascinating, there is a whole another section of society that can stand to benefit: persons with disabilities.
UNCHARTED (VIRTUAL REALITY) TERRITORY
An exciting aspect of VR technology is the ability to safely plunge persons with disabilities in virtual environments. For some learners, virtual reality technology can immerse them in virtual environments without the limitations of their disability. Take, for example, a wheelchair user experiencing a cross-country bike ride, a mountainside climb or simply surfing standing up. It is fascinating how technology can temporarily eliminate limitations (physical and otherwise) and allow individuals a richer living experience.
A WIDER LIVING EXPERIENCE
One can also improve their skills and expand their knowledge by navigating simulated learning scenarios. For those using a wheelchair for the very first time, they can ‘step’ into a busy street scene or learn how to get around a shop without fear of a collision. Here, technology allows people to rehearse potentially challenging tasks and sharpen the relevant life skills from the safety of their classroom or living room. VR technology enables those with limited arm or hand mobility to use computers to the fullest extent. This same combination of technology and headgear can be utilised to provide job-training to new employees or for businesses to build more inclusive offices or retail spaces.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
According to researchers, autistic children feel more comfortable engaging with others via virtual, online gaming environments. Keeping that in mind, this technology is now being used to introduce road safety, as well as improve one-on-one communication skills to children with autism. More specifically, they can learn to pick up on nonverbal cues, read facial expressions, and better their overall social interactions.
FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS
Similarly, a VR-simulation can be used in empathy-building exercises for school-going children and teens. Students can get an idea of what life with a disability is like, and hopefully, lead their lives with more compassion as well as understanding.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Despite the potential applications of VR technology for persons with disabilities, the hardware and software have yet to be completely accessible. With a strong dependency on visual markers, VR tech is out of the reach of those with limited vision. Not only that, most headsets are expensive pieces of equipment to buy. Lastly, VR tech’s reliance on inch-perfect tracking and recreating exact movements may exclude those with physical disabilities. All hope is not lost, at least when it comes to software like Walkin VR Driver. The software developers aim to make virtual reality as accessible as possible. This includes facilitating wheelchair gamers by allowing them to pivot, stand, and kneel a full 360 degrees – virtually! Those using only one arm can utilise a virtual controller, while others can manually change the VR controller’s sensitivity to movement to align with their range of motion.
VR can make the “impossible” possible for people with disabilities, but only if the hardware, software, and simulated environments are all designed with this goal in mind.