8 Exciting Ways Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Help People With Disabilities

When people think of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), they usually focus on gaming equipment like the Oculus Rift or enhanced reality games like Pokemon Go. But VR and AR technology does so much more. This advanced tech is already changing healthcare, real estate sales, vacation planning, and scientific exploration.

Both technologies are also assisting people with disabilities in their everyday lives. Today, we’re going to explore eight of the most exciting examples of this in action.

8 VR and AR Applications for People With Disabilities

1. Leading the Blind

You may be familiar with the blind superhero Daredevil, who uses small audio cues to move, run, and even fight. The same basic concept applies to new programs using guided audio to help blind people move through museums, college campuses, and entire cities.

At its most basic, these programs provide a guided audio tour with location finders to walk somebody through a description and essential safety advisories as they experience a museum. This concept can expand into larger areas with the installation of more location finders and visual cues. As the smart city movement gains traction, it’s not difficult to imagine an entire metropolis outfitted with VR and AR applications to help blind people navigate safely and with greater independence.

This technology can also help people who aren’t blind but wear eyeglasses. VR goggles enhance vision similar to the way corrective lenses do. At the same time, AR assistance can call attention to hazards with bright highlights or other cues visible to those with severe vision visual impairment.

2. Practice Makes Perfect

We all know accomplishing difficult tasks is easier with practice. For people with anxiety, depression, autism, or other disabilities that impact how they engage with the world, social interaction can be overwhelming.

A team at the University of Haifa is developing a program that allows autistic children to practice everything from communicating with others to crossing the street. Within the VR interface, they’re free to experiment, make mistakes, and learn without the social and physical risks found in the real world.

This concept is part of learning almost all tasks: You practice first with low stakes and consequences for error, then gradually increase those stakes as your competence improves. VR and AR have simply opened the model to a broader spectrum of people.

3. Assisting Communication

Communication is a fundamental aspect of being human. Being cut off from communicating can be one of the most crushing burdens of a speech, hearing, or language disorder.

The beginnings of these solutions are already part of popular culture, with examples including Stephen Hawking’s speech hardware to new real-time translation apps for our phones. VR and AR add new levels to this, potentially increasing connectedness and independence for millions.

One striking example of this is an augmented reality system linking a pair of gloves with a speaker system. Haptics in the gloves translates sign language in real-time, speaking the signed words audibly for those around and instantly increasing the number of people who can understand the wearer. Developers also see this as a potential tool for teaching sign language by giving learners immediate feedback to refine their signing skills.

4. Accessing Out-of-Reach Experiences

The VR application here is almost identical to how the abled use VR and AR in their lives: to experience things they couldn’t otherwise. For people without disabilities, this ranges from visiting alien planets to exotic travel on earth to epic gun battles and sports competitions beyond the constraints of their regular lives.

For the disabled, there are many apps and hardware suites that allow them to virtually experience activities like climbing mountains, skiing, walking upstairs, or ballroom dancing. Unlike other items on this list, these don’t require new concepts or technologies. They apply what we’ve been doing for fun to the needs of those living with disabilities.

For example, a Dutch nonprofit has created a program using waterproof VR glasses that allow somebody to drift in a pool and interact with virtual bottlenose and spinner dolphins. It’s been used like psychological therapy to help relax and treat trauma. But it can be tweaked to let people experience a swim with dolphins who could never travel to do so physically.

5. Checking for Accessibility

Think of the last time you planned a vacation. Chances are you looked at a map or checked Google Earth to look at the destinations’ street-level images.

For anybody with a mobility-limiting disability, part of this planning includes assessing a location’s general accessibility. What might be trivial for the abled could be taxing somebody in a wheelchair or with a balance-impacting disability.

Taking a VR or AR tour of a destination can let somebody with a disability virtually walk their route, checking for potential issues with accessibility. They can plan routes, finding the most accessible options and gaining greater mobility and independence.

This application can go beyond those with mobility disabilities. Taking a dry run of an errand or journey can help reduce stress for those suffering from crippling anxiety, allowing them to enter the world sooner and more frequently.

6. Augmenting the Senses

By now, you’ve likely already seen the YouTube videos of babies fitted with hearing aids for the first time or an adult viewing the world through reality-augmenting glasses that canceled his colorblindness. These are impressive, but they’re just the beginning of the possibilities.

Only a tiny fraction of people with visual or hearing impairments suffer a total loss of that sense. The overwhelming majority can benefit from VR or AR applications that amplify or refine the input from these senses. For example, a VR program that magnifies objects on-demand can overcome severe visual impairments. An AR filter that cancels background noise can drive the next generation of hearing aids.

For those with a total loss of one sense, the same practices can enhance the other senses to help overcome that disability or potentially reroute information from one sense to another — for example, haptic feedback that uses touch to help steer a blind person on an augmented reality tour

7. Helping Recovery From Strokes and Other Injuries

Visualizing an activity helps athletes improve their performance and people suffering from anxiety have difficult conversations. The Duke University Walk Again Project applies this concept to help people walk again after suffering a stroke or injury.

Combining the dynamic visualization of guided meditation with a videogame’s fun and motivation, this VR-based brain app interfaces with devices that help move the arms and legs as the user visualizes them moving. As the neural pathways regrow, the assist gradually reduces until the patient moves under their power alone. Walk Again has worked in pilot programs, restoring movement to patients who previously would never recover.

8. Getting Hired

Many people with disabilities can’t work in various industries or perform specific tasks. This includes being unable to do the work physically and or reach critical areas in the workplace because of limited mobility.

VR and AR can help to solve these problems in a variety of ways:

Direct assistance technology that helps a disabled employee perform physical tasks
Sensory adaptation to augment the senses or mitigate the issues associated with a sensory processing disorder
Various forms of augmentation for remote work, allowing somebody to do fulfilling and meaningful work without leaving home
Wearable technology that helps a disabled person reach work and perform in the work environment
Training tools to help somebody with a learning or sensory disability gain the skills needed to do a job

Accessibility in the workplace is nothing new. As a society, we’ve made advances in law, medicine, and technology to make meaningful work a possibility for more and more people. Adding VR and AR to this suite of solutions is the next step.

Final Thoughts

The virtual/augmented shoe can also go on the other foot, helping increase understanding and empathy in the general public for people with disabilities.

For example, Alzheimer’s Research UK released a virtual reality app (called, “A Walk Through Dementia”), that simulates the experience of living with dementia. Similar applications could simulate living with ADHD, autism, and other disabilities.

It’s not hard to imagine how spending even an hour using such an app would improve how well we understand the hardships and challenges of those with disabilities.

Image Credit: eren li; pexels; thank you!

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