How VR Can Ease the Transition for First-Time Wheelchair Users

Designers at innovation and design company, Fjord, have created a VR experience that teaches brand new wheelchair users how to safely maneuver their environment in a safe, empowering way.

The team at Fjord always keeps one thing in mind while working on new designs: human impact. The Wheelchair Training Program, a VR experience that teaches new wheelchair users how to move in their environment, is the latest example of the design company using innovative techniques for good.

The project was born out of a study focused on facilitating empathy through immersive experiences. The team decided to focus on wheelchair accessibility early on in the brainstorming process after watching Jason DaSilva’s, When I Walk, a documentary that showcases the often difficult transition to a wheelchair by new users.

The designers logged obstacles, collected data from POV photos and videos, and studied multiple accessibility maps before honing in on the Wheelchair Training Program’s final form.

“We were not focused on a design solution at that point,” said Fjord Design Strategy Lead John Jones. “We were looking for a simple way to navigate the content we were collecting.”

After conducting extensive interviews with wheelchair users to determine the most common navigational issues faced during the first few days in a wheelchair, the team began designing the training program. The result? A two-pronged prototype that combines a motion-sensor equipped stationary wheelchair with an immersive, virtual urban environment.

The user sits in the wheelchair, puts on a headset, and enters the virtual urban landscape, intentionally designed to be “light, bright, and airy” to avoid gamifying the experience. As the user navigates the wheelchair by turning and steering the free-moving wheels, the motion sensors send feedback to the simulation, updating the VR landscape in real time. Users improve their steering abilities and learn how to navigate through a sea of pedestrians in a safe, controlled environment.

Though it’s hard to imagine the project without VR now, it wasn’t the only application that the team considered during the design process.

“We considered 360 video,” said Jones. “Ultimately, VR allowed us the flexibility to highlight obstacles, use the wheelchair as a controller and build our own single environment, which included all of the issues we had seen.”

A number of healthcare facilities have expressed interest in the project, and Fjord hopes to eventually bring it to market.

“We are continuing to move the prototype forward and have spoken to several potential client partners to continue the development with us,” said Jones.

About the Scout

Presley West

Emory University student, VRScout Writer, Storyteller, and Amateur Dog Walker.

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