Virtual reality to assist people with intellectual disabilities real world way finding

New places can be confusing. Particularly places like airports and train stations that provide no small a dose of anxiety for unfamiliar travellers. Additional confidence from prior knowledge gained through virtual reality familiarisation videos contributes to reduce some of those anxieties. For people with intellectual disabilities, having this prior knowledge, customised in the way they like to experience a place, improves their capacity to enjoy that experience.

Directional sign on train station platform showing where wheelchairs can board.

Computer human interaction researchers, Dr Laurianne Sitbon and Dr Ross Brown, from Queensland University of Technology, and their students have been working with participants from the Endeavour Foundation and their carers. They have identified several scenarios for which virtual reality (VR) technology may provide a solution.

“The primary issues are lack of confidence and unfamiliarity with unknown locations. When we worked out how much our participants with intellectual disabilities enjoyed using virtual reality technology, we could see that it was part of the solution,” Dr Sitbon said.

“Previously, VR experiences had a limited reach due to costly access both to technology and to technical capability to create content. The barrier to entry is now reduced with affordable VR headsets and 360 video cameras making it easy for people to create immersive experiences,” Dr Sitbon said.

Dr Sitbon and Dr Brown discovered that the best way to present the video experience, so it will have the greatest take-up, is to make virtual reality videos for this purpose. It is best to have the experience include a companion as an element of the video. The team shoots the video from the arm of the carer, including them as they walk into the location in some shots. This gives the viewer both a feeling for the size of the space, and how crowded the space can become. In addition, the video needs to be stable enough so the viewer does not feel disoriented.

Technical training for carers

The next essential step in bringing this research into real world implementation is providing useful skills to new users. The research team is designing VR production and editing training for the people who are looking forward to using this technology in this context, the companions and carers.
Considering the many circumstances in which this technology could be utilised, there is an opportunity to make a considerable difference to the enjoyment and confidence of visitors who would otherwise be somewhat anxious in their first encounter.

The researchers working with Dr Sitbon have also been examining ways to use 3D illustration design technology, which has also become less expensive as a common use tool in recent times. The team, including QUT students in their final year of bachelor of IT, is using this alternative form of technology to create interactive ‘game-like’ environments for familiarising people with intellectual disabilities with the use of essential facilities such as automatic teller machines, for example. Dr Sitbon said that while this is more time consuming to develop, and needs more research to find how people like to move in these virtual worlds and how to make the interactions more realistic, the results have been very encouraging.

This research is made possible with the support of the Endeavour Foundation Endowment Challenge Fund.

Contact Dr Laurianne Sitbon at QUT for more information about this research. 
Find out more about research at QUT.