Published Online: June 1, 1994

Virtual Reality Puts Disabled Students In Touch

Chris Dede envisions a future in which students will not study science in cluttered and potentially dangerous laboratories. Instead, they will learn in a limitless "virtual world.''

Rather than huddle over lab tables, he says, students will plug into computer workstations that will simulate--in an astoundingly realistic, three-dimensional form--not only the experience of conducting a chemistry experiment, but also such exotic adventures as "becoming'' an electron.

With the help of a two-year, $950,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Mr. Dede is studying whether a sophisticated--though still-developing--technology known as virtual reality can help make science more accessible for all students.

"There are things that we can make happen in virtual reality that are magical,'' said Mr. Dede, a professor of education and information technology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Virtual reality allows a person to interact with a three-dimensional computer-generated world. A person using such a system moves and reacts based on sight, sound, and sometimes touch within the computerized world.

At this point, lay people most likely encounter virtual reality in a video arcade, where first-generation versions of the technology are entering the market in the form of games.

Experts in the field, meanwhile, suggest that as the technology develops and becomes more cost effective for school use, the students who may benefit the most from Mr. Dede's work and that of his colleagues are those whose learning is impaired by disabilities.

Researchers say that virtual reality may allow disabled students to experience things in the classroom that they are unable to do any other way.

Students with cerebral palsy, for example, may be able to conduct chemistry experiments safely, without having to mix volatile chemicals or light a Bunsen burner.

"Kids who don't have the mobility skills now ... will be able to experience those things at very early ages,'' said Larry Skadden, a senior project director for the N.S.F.

Dressed for Travel

To enter the "virtual world,'' a user usually puts on a headset equipped with a small video screen for each eye and a glove that translates hand motions into digital information that is displayed on those screens as a sophisticated approximation of actual motion.

Users can travel through a variety of virtual worlds--encountering such things as monsters, mountains, and science experiments on the way.

Special-education researchers are particularly interested in virtual reality's use in teaching disabled students to improve their control of the physical world.

Dean Inman of the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Ore., for example, is using virtual reality to teach students with impaired mobility how to use wheelchairs.

Mr. Inman, who was awarded what is thought to be the U.S. Education Department's first grant to study the applications of virtual reality, is developing four virtual worlds in which students with disabilities can simulate movement via electric wheelchairs.

In the still-experimental project, disabled children are seated in wheelchairs mounted on rollers.

Using the accouterments of virtual reality, they can "travel'' through a virtual school, cross a virtual street, and tackle the challenge of moving through simulated mud and ice. After they accomplish those tasks, they are allowed to take simulated trips--they can "fly'' across a black-and-white tile floor or even off the edge of the earth.

Using a modified joystick, even students with severe disabilities can learn to maneuver a wheelchair, Mr. Inman said.

These children likely would not have access to electric wheelchairs, which cost between $6,000 and $10,000, any other way, he said, because doctors prescribe such chairs only for children who have some basic mobility skills.

Mr. Inman, who has worked with orthopedically impaired children for more than 10 years, said it is often difficult to motivate children with congenital disabilities to learn to use a wheelchair.

But, he said, the "treat'' of flying in the virtual world encourages them to keep trying until they develop enough skills to use a real wheelchair.

And using virtual reality eliminates any safety concerns about learning to maneuver a chair in traffic or other potentially dangerous situations, he noted.

Eye on Costs

The educational applications of virtual reality in the near future likely will be far less ambitious than the uses imagined today, researchers concede, but some two-dimensional computer animation already is being used with disabled students.

One researcher in California, for example, uses an animation program to allow children who have difficulty moving to express themselves through dance and to demonstrate that they understand basic concepts about movement.

And as video-game producers develop the technology, making virtual reality more commonplace, it likely will become affordable for school use.

"In the long run, what's going to make this feasible for schools is the entertainment industry,'' Mr. Dede predicted.

Virtual reality could become a cost-cutting, as well as motivational and instructional tool, researchers say.

But, as with many technological innovations, the major financial barrier to widespread use of virtual reality is likely to be the cost of training teachers to use the equipment, rather than the cost of the equipment itself, said Cynthia Warger, an educational consultant who also works for the Council for Exceptional Children's technology and media division.

She also noted that, at least initially, there probably would not be sufficient educational software to make widespread use of virtual reality feasible.

Another likely obstacle, observers say, is that for all of the potential educational advantages of virtual reality, it may be difficult to convince some educators that visits to virtual worlds are a substitute for actual experiences.

"I guess I'm old-fashioned,'' said Gerhard Salinger, an N.S.F. program director, who said he believes that "kids ought to know how to use real tools.''

For students with disabilities, however, such hands-on instruction is not always an option, proponents say.

"Simulation,'' Mr. Skadden of the N.S.F. argued, "is still better than nothing.''

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