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Apr 04, 2005

Virtual reality for disabled individuals

From the "Presence" listserv

September 23, 2004
Special to The Globe and Mail

Anyone who's used Sony's EyeToy for the PlayStation 2 console knows how much fun it can be to put yourself into a video game with the help of a camera. More advanced technology developed in Canada is being used to help people with special needs learn skills and experience things that used to be beyond their reach.

The technology comes from a partnership between integrator Xperiential Learning Solutions Inc. and Toronto developer Jestertek Inc. (formerly the Vivid Group), whose virtual reality systems have been installed in places ranging from museums and science centres to the hockey and basketball halls of fame.
The pair's Experiential Learning Product Suite is aimed at people with physical, mental or behavioural disabilities.

Xperiential's founder, Theo D'Hollander, has a son with autism and relatives who suffer from cerebral palsy and Down syndrome. "It made me realize that this whole area [of technology for people with disabilities] is almost like a generation behind, it's in the industrial age when the rest of the world is in the Internet age," he said. "Today's technology is great for things like information gathering, but it has actually created more distance between people with disabilities and the life or job opportunities they need. The answer is to use technology to help create new experiences for them."

Like Sony's EyeToy, the Experiential Learning Product Suite uses cameras to capture a person's image and project it onto a monitor or large screen, combining it in real-time with the computer-generated action. The player can participate in virtual reality scenarios such as snowboarding, soccer, boxing, racing, and even mountain climbing, controlling the action by moving parts of their body. It's there the similarities cease, however.

Using cameras that capture at least 30 frames a second and hardware much more powerful than a game console, the suite can adapt to a player's physical characteristics and abilities.
Sensitivity, speed and range of motion are adjustable, allowing people to control programs with tiny gestures -- from a shrug to a toe-twitch -- letting a bedridden person see what it's like to ride a horse, or someone without the use of their hands play a virtual musical instrument.

The profile for each user can be fine-tuned as their mobility or skills improve. The partners are also working on a way to allow people to compete or collaborate on-line.

"It's very much a motivational experience for the kids or adults with disabilities who use the system," Jestertek president Vincent John Vincent said.

"Children with cognitive disabilities have short attention spans,"Mr. D'Hollander added. "With these programs, they're engaged by the games and music. There's something enticing about seeing themselves on television, and the idea that they're inside a computer game."

A study by the University of Ottawa is looking at ways to use the suite to make children's home-exercise rehabilitation programs more engaging.

"This gives people, especially those with some cognitive impairments or disabilities, the opportunity to have an experience that could not be possible otherwise," explained Dr. Heidi Seistrup, associate professor in the University's School of Rehabilitation Sciences.

"For example, they could play volleyball even though they're in a wheelchair, just by moving their fingers. The environment can be tweaked to allow someone with a very limited range of motion to play against someone who has a full range of motion. You put them on a level playing field, which you can't do in real life very easily."

In other cases, the suite is used to teach life skills. There are modules that can train people to sort a load of laundry, teach basic traffic safety, or show how to serve customers in a doughnut shop.

The system can be a social behaviour coach, too, Mr.
D'Hollander said. "Having a child with autism go to a family gathering at Christmas or go into a crowded mall is a big issue, because the initial encounter is so intense they can't handle it.
We can create a tape of family settings or a mall, and allow children to get used to it by interacting with [the virtual crowd] before they encounter the real thing, helping them over that social hurdle."

A site licence for the Experiential Learning Product Suite is $5,600 (including hardware for a single user and several dozen applications), and systems for additional users can be purchased for around $750 each. There's also a basic unit that sells for around $400, including about a dozen games, to deliver extra entertainment and exercise-related programs in a home setting.

Over the past several months, Xperiential has sold about 30 site licences to community living homes, rehabilitation centres and school boards across Ontario, as well as to customers in the United States and Europe, Mr. D'Hollander said.

A unit was recently installed at Community Living Oakville in Oakville, Ont. "We use it three times a week, and it's awesome,"
day service worker Kelleigh Melito said. "They love the dancing, racing and snowboarding. Because of our location, they can't get out much to go for walks, because there are no sidewalks; this is how they get their exercise."

Don Seymour, executive director of developmental services for Lambton County, Ont., said he hopes to use the virtual reality units in all the special needs homes under his jurisdiction.

"I watched a fellow we support who is in a wheelchair get in front of the camera and look at the screen, and all of a sudden realize he was in a racecar," Mr. Seymour said. "All he had to do was move his shoulders to race this car around a track. For a person who has limited mobility with their arms or legs, to be able to steer a racecar on a big screen was incredible."

"You hear about this stuff a dozen times in a year, and then to actually find something that has immediate flexibility to our folks is quite something," he added.

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