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How Virtual Reality Worlds Inspire People With Disabilities

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A student in a wheelchair tests out a virtual reality experience at Aalto University in Finland. (Tuukka Takala and Liisa Hirvisalo)

Virtual reality's appeal as a medical tool is nothing new. It's been used to treat phobias, reduce pain and even help doctors perform surgery.

And now, it's increasingly used to help people with disabilities explore the world in ways they may never be able to in real life—at a price within reach.

For $10 you can buy a cardboard virtual reality "headset," download a free iPhone app, slot in your phone and explore virtual worlds from a wheelchair, bed or couch.

'That Butterfly Happiness'

A couple months ago, virtual reality company Specular Theory was hosting a table at Singularity University's Future of Virtual Reality event, when Danny Kurtzman cruised by in his wheelchair.

Kurtzman, who has muscular dystrophy, surfs in real life through a non-profit organization that helps people with paralysis engage in action sports. With the assistance of a 12-person team from Life Rolls On, Kurtzman can lie down on a board, get carried into the water, and then move into the waves.


The day Kurtzman stopped at the Specular Theory table, he had no idea what he'd be watching.

Then co-founder Ryan Pulliam handed him a virtual surfing experience.

"It was such a trip because I went surfing last week but I was laying down on the board," Kurtzman says. "In the headset I could actually experience surfing standing up!"

The Newport Beach native says he'd never had that sensation before.

"It gave me that awesome feeling —that butterfly happiness feeling," he says. "It allowed me to experience something I thought I never could experience."

Pulliam and her co-founder Morris May were mesmerized watching Kurtzman test out the demo.

Danny Kurtzman, who has muscular distrophy, said being able to virtually surf via Specular Theory's demo gave him "goosebumps."
Danny Kurtzman, who has muscular distrophy, says being able to virtually surf via Specular Theory's demo gave him "goosebumps."

“I’ll never forget looking at him, he was stoked,” Pulliam says. "He made us realize this goes beyond empathy—it’s a way to inspire people with disabilities and give them new experiences as if they are real. It’s this powerful, magical moment."

Pulliam and her team created the virtual reality experience by using proprietary software to film professional surfers in California and Mexico. She says the video is not interactive--the user can't move his or her body in real life and see it move in the headset.

"It's a cinematic experience," she says, "where you can look down at the board and feel like you're barreling through a wave."

VR Lures Big Tech

In 2014, Facebook purchased VR company Oculus for $2 billion; analysts predict the company will sell millions of units next year, when its Oculus Rift headset hits the market.

Google now offers Street View via virtual reality and sells inexpensive VR cardboard headsets online.

Google's birthplace, Stanford University, launched a Virtual Human Interaction Lab in 2003 that is pioneering the development of new virtual worlds.

Jeremy Bailenson runs the lab and measures VR's affect on its participants. He has even studied how being disabled in a virtual world affects able-bodied users.

He found that people who experienced color blindness in a virtual world were more likely to voluntarily assist people with color blindness in real life.

He has also created a world where users have more limbs than they would in real life. They might have three arms and need to adapt to this new body.

Through VR's sensory feedback, we can gain a new understanding of our bodies, Bailenson says. Through virtual experiences, we can even reshape our homunculus—a map of the body we have in the brain.

Since the lab started in 2003, its researchers have met with influential figures like Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama.

Attendees at the presidential event on the Stanford University campus say Obama even joked that Congress could benefit from the lab's empathy work.

Dale Garrett of Columbia, MO is a 96-year-old WWII Veteran that is able to virtually visit his war memorial.
Dale Garrett of Columbia, MO is a 96-year-old WWII Veteran who is able to virtually visit his war memorial through virtual reality. (Honor Everywhere)

VR for Social Benefit

Honor Everywhere has created VR experiences for aging or terminally ill WWII veterans so they can virtually visit their war memorials halfway across the country.

For younger Americans, the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology developed a program called BreakThru to help students with disabilities pursue STEM careers.

Through virtual reality, students solve complex problems in imagined worlds that may be applicable to their future careers. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program has helped place 225 students in STEM careers.

Though virtual reality has been around for decades, the advancements we're seeing now are momentous.

"It is a pivotal moment in virtual reality," Bailenson says, "as VR migrates from the laboratory to living rooms across the world."

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