The phrase ‘virtual reality’ might make you think of video games – but Adelaide researchers say the technology could change the lives of millions of Aussies living with a disability.
When Associate Professor Caroline Ellison heard about a new project involving virtual reality (VR) – she knew she had to try it for herself.
Putting on a headset and immersing herself in a ‘walk the plank’ scenario that put her on the edge of a high rise building, she was overwhelmed with how real the whole experience felt, and immediately saw a use for the technology in the disability sector.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunities for people living with a disability,” she told 10 News First.
She teamed up with Stefan Michalski and Dr Ancret Szpak, also from the University of South Australia, to explore the potential for VR in bettering the lives for the many in our community who experience exclusion because of physical and mental disabilities.
Michalski and Dr Szpak have successfully proven how VR can improve sporting skills – specifically in table tennis. They had one group train under the VR headset, and another group practice by playing the sport in real life.
In the end, the skills learned via VR were so transferable to real life, that an expert table tennis coach couldn’t tell the difference between the two groups and their skill level.
With skills so easily learned under the technology, the researchers said it’s only a matter of time before VR is used more commonly to upskill – and could have significant benefits for the disabled community.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, 3.96 million Aussies live with a disability – that’s roughly 20 percent of the population.
From a social aspect, VR could bring to life experiences that for some, have only ever been imagined – like a nature hike or exploring national monuments.
“People with a disability often get excluded, or left at home while their family goes out to do active things. So this is an opportunity to use virtual reality so they could have exactly the same experience,” Ellison said.
She took one of the headsets to Orana Australia – an organisation that supports people living with a disability. Eager clients were quick to throw themselves into the VR experience – and the headset took them to various locations around South Australia that they’d never been able to visit before, like the popular Deep Creek Conservation Park or the Flinders Ranges.
“They could see the same flowers, they could see the same animals, they could see the same view, and then come home and talk to their family about it,” said Ellison.
Looking forward, Ellison and the research team hope they can use the technology to provide a safe environment for people to learn vocational skills that could lead to a job.
“People with a disability, because of risk management, often don’t even get to try things,” said Ellison.
“If someone’s working with a gardening crew, are they allowed to use a chainsaw? Are they allowed to use the whipper snipper? Often they don’t get a chance to even try – because it’s dangerous. So we can use VR to give them a chance to have a go and see what their skills are and teach them to do things safely.”
“They can improve their independence and train in those environments, and they are able to develop skills and practice as much as they want, anytime they want,” said Michalski.
There’s even the possibility the technology could help treat disorders like depression, anxiety and phobias.
“Being on a plane might be fearful for some people, and it’s not practical to bring people on a plane,” explained Dr Szpak.
“In virtual reality, you can bring that plane to them and they can safely explore their fears.
“We want to actually do research on that, and explore the possibility of bringing research to areas where it hasn’t been used before.”
Feature image: Getty
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