Applied Computer Simulation Labs

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VR People

VR People

Angie Buckert-Donelson

While the promises of VR have lured the dreamers, skeptics have questioned whether the tech-nology would live up to its poten-tial. Orthopedic research scientist Dean Inman was one of the doubtful. Although fascinated by the potential applications of VR in his work with disabled children, he doubted the high-priced technology would be a practical tool that could give him results. Inman's misgivings began to fade away two years ago when his wife, Dr. Lynne Anderson-Inman, director of the Center for Election Studying at the University of Oregon, returned from a conference on interactive tech-nology. She was inspired after hearing Brenda Laurel, a prominent author and artist in the field of VR. Laurel spoke on new developments in VR that were dramatically bringing down costs and improving the quality of the technology.

Inman decided to submit an innovative proposal to the U.S. Department of Education. The effort won him a $600,000 three-year grant for research that is now being conducted at the Oregon Research Institute, a non-profit institution where Inman works. The project is designed to train disabled children to maneuver their motorized wheelchairs in virtual worlds so they will become adept at managing real-life situations.

Since winning the initial award and a new grant that will use VR to expand educational opportunities for disabled children, Inman has been flooded with interview requests from The New York Times, the Associated Press, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, CNN, PBS, National Geographic, and dozens of television stations, magazines, and books.

"It definitely is indicative of a climate in the country. People are interested in the idea that we can use technology for a good, positive, uplifting purpose," Inman says.

In this interview with VR World, Inman discusses his background and his work, the challenges of setting up a complex VR system, and the revolutionary opportunities that VR technology is bringing to the disabled.

VRW: How did you become interested in VR?

Inman: I've always been very interested in physiology and learning. I had intended to work in experimental psychology research, but six months before In was ready to finish up my PhD, I realized that I did not want to work in learning theory or with animals. What I really enjoyed was working with handicapped children. I made this discovery while pursuing my degree in Utah, where I had the opportunity to work with deaf, severely behavior-disordered Eskimo children who were having problems living in an ultra-conservative environment. So I quit the Ph.D. program and came to the University of Oregon for my degree in special education. Here, I knew I could work to my heart's content with disabled people.

As a Ph.D. student, I began study-ing skeletal dysfunctions in orthopedic-impaired children. We used biofeed-back techniques and equipment to study skeletal muscles as children performed functional activities. As I worked with that population, I developed inter-est in wheelchair operation. The ability to operate a wheelchair is critical, and without coordination in the upper body, some children cannot operate the equipment. They were dependent on other people.

I studied joystick operation and wheelchair training, and, in turn, devel-oped some innovative techniques for overcoming upper extremity dysfunction. In doing that work, I decided it would be useful at some point to have a computer simulator that would train kids to drive wheelchairs. A colleague and I did some initial programming using computers in a 2D, flat-screen simulation to see if we could teach the skills of driving wheelchairs. But that work was proceeding very slowly and without funding.

Then, two years ago, my wife came home from a conference, where she had heard Brenda Laurel talk about VR. My wife encouraged me to consider VR on an idea I had for a simulator. She said, "It's come down to a price point where you could consider writing a grant to do it." The price of a system we could use had come down in just a few years, from $300,000 to about 30,000. So we went to work, wrote a grant, and got it funded.

Dean Inman

"We can use VR for a good, positive, uplifting purpose."

VRW: How are you using VR in your work at the Oregon Research Institute?

Inman: We are using the technology to investigate the possibilities of teaching mobility skills to children with severe orthopedic impairments who are operating motorized wheelchairs. To do this, we have created three virtual worlds. Each world is created three dimensionally in the HMD as you drive an electric wheelchair mounted on rollers. A joystick that is hooked up to the computer allows you to change speed and direction.

The first world is a black-and-white tile floor that runs to infinity in all directions. There are no obstacles. It's a wide-open space where you can turn, or stop or reverse. We estimate that you can go between 80 and 100 miles an hour, which is quite exciting to a child who has never experienced independent mobility before.

The second world is full of things like ice and mud and obelisks of various kinds that become active when you get close enough to them. You cannot go through them; you have to go around them. In this world, we've laid the foundations for purposeful exploration, discovery, and visual immersion. If you go far enough in any direction, the world ends, and you fly.

The third world is modeled after a traffic intersection in Eugene, Oregon, complete with cars, a crosswalk, and lights. Our goal is to teach kids to cross safely in a virtual world, while we measure the effects of the training in the actual world.

VRW: As the director of this research project at the Oregon Research Institute, you put in a lot of hours there. But you're also active in private practice. How do you balance your schedule and your priorities?

Inman: I own three medical practices, spending one day a week at one hospital setting or another. I spend the rest of the week at the institute.

In private practice, I work with gastrointestinologists and colorectal surgeons, and I diagnose and treat pelvic disorders; which affect bowel and bladder control. The work is important and very, very interesting. I take the techniques I've developed in working with the severely and profoundly handicapped and use them to treat normal people who have terrible problems controlling their musculature.

VRW: You've landed the Oregon Research Institute some significant grants, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. How is that money being used?

Inman: At the institute, I work with a staff of four part-time people-a programmer, a graphic designer, a project coordinator, a secretary-as well as a few consultants. We have a lean staff, and the equipment costs approximately 15 percent of the budget. Most of our money goes into developing the applications.

People in the VR field have been expert in developing worlds, especially the worlds of recreation. Most developers offer software that's interactive and very flashy, but the applications are poor. Worlds are poorly conceived, and they have few practical applications. That's what's missing in the field. I consider VR a tool-it is one tool among many. I am not a VR devotee. I am not sold that VR is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It is certainly useful and has some interesting potential. But I am interested in the disabled population and whether we can help them with this tool.

VRW: The federal grants you've won are unique-they represent the Department of Education's first efforts to fund education projects for the disabled that integrate VR equipment. Tell us a little more about these contracts.

Inman: The wheelchair project was funded through a Department of Edu-cation grant, worth $213,000 a year for three years. We spent the first year creating the worlds. Over the next two years, we will be evaluating the children that use them.

Our most recent funding involves a $207,000 Department of Education grant that will enable us to begin creating science labs for high school students who are severely orthopedically challenged. In the science lab, they will be able to do things like every other stu-dent in science does, such as operate microscopes, or make acids, or build apparatuses in a physics class. They can do things in VR that they could not do in the actual world because of the physical limitations.

VRW: So VR will provide disabled students with the tools they need to perform real experiments that model true.-to-life phenomenon, such as the effects of gravity?

Inman: That's right. The idea is the same as in the street crossing project. We go to the place, model it in a virtual world, and evaluate the effects in the actual world. In this case, we aren't evaluating the actual world. We are modeling, for example, the science experiments based on what the actual science labs look like. We will be using CD-ROM technology that will enable us to produce photographic quality pictures. In some cases, they will look as real as anything anyone sees in a microscope.

VRW: You've been able to win these grants, even though you had no experience in developing virtual worlds before creating these projects. Grant writing is a fiercely competitive field. How have you made this fundraising pursuit a success?

Inman: It takes a tremendous amount of work to write a successful grant application, but it's something I've been doing for twenty years. It's practically an art form. You have to have a background, credentials, experience and it helps if the granting agency knows who you are and that you will do a credible job with public money. You also have to have an accounting system in place that guarantees the money will not be misappropriated. You have to abide by all the human rights guarantees that the federal government expects when it gives away money for research projects. The list goes on and on. It's very difficult. Grant writing is a career.

After we were selected for the last award, I was told the government had received forty-four applications for the project. Four projects were funded out of forty-four very serious attempts proposed by the nation's best researchers. The competition is very intense.

My wife and I are now in the process of reapplying for another three years to extend the science education grant we recently received. My wife, who is an expert in hypermedia, has cowritten the past two VR grants we've received. So we're marrying together hypermedia and VR in our proposals. We call it "hyper VR."

VRW: What are some of the challenges you've faced in setting up a VR system? What equipment are you using?

Inman: We use Sense8's WorldTool-Kit with a two PC-format, using 486s with graphics accelerators, 3D sound systems from Beachtron, the EyeGen3 from Virtual Research as an HMD, a Logitech tracker, and a Fortress Wheelchair (we had to build the interface between the 'computer and the wheelchair). We also use a Spaceball and some modeling programs, using a C++ compiler.

At the present stage, we've run up against a couple of problems. For example, when you put a system together, the components come from different vendors. Unfortunately, each of these vendors is improving and developing their own particular part of the puzzle - and everything we received, at least at the point when we bought it, was a beta-test version. So you might have a piece of new equipment that used to work with a version 3.0 of the software. But when you put it together, the new equipment is not compatible with the old software. It's full of bugs.

It's a real problem when you are putting together a system that has six, eight, or twelve separate pieces from separate vendors. When you do find a glitch, you pull your hair out trying to find where it is. The process of linking different equipment from different vendors can be a nightmare. And these are problems that companies are not anxious to help you solve. It takes their time, and let's face it, they want to sell equipment.

Another problem is the basic shell that the suppliers provide. It's a good idea, and the cost is almost reasonable. But it's not the same thing as buying a product that is ready to use. You have to build the worlds stick by stick. You have to have a programmer and a designer who are quite versatile with 3D programming and input/output devices. There aren't a large number of these people around. The people I have are excellent. But even though they are very experienced, it wasn't easy for them to solve the problem. They have to read the documentation and gradually figure it out. Now they've become quite proficient at fixing the problems, but it took them a year to do it. That's a lot of money in salaries.

VRW: What general improvements in VR technology must he made in order for you to help the disabled solve mobility problems?

Inman: The frame rate is slower than we want it, and that means the joystick is not as responsive as it should be. We're trying to upgrade our system now. There's also a significant delay between the time when you move your head and when the computer senses that and moves the world in front of you. There are lots of limitations: the weight of the helmet, the resolution of the cameras. We are at an Apple IIE stage of devel-opment in terms of technology. but the improvements are coming.

VRW: What are some of the specific problems that the disabled population faces? How will the technology help them?

Inman: Motor dysfunction limits walking, eating, talking, standing, working, just about every aspect of life. What you do is a function of what you are able to make your muscles do for you. People who don't have adequate control over those muscle groups are very, very limited in what they can do, express, enjoy, and such. My area of interest is in over-coming motor dysfunction, and I am interested in using VR as a tool to work toward that goal.

Something we rarely realize is that the technologies we are so fond of - ones that provide us with entertainment and desktop publishing and other things - are the very same technologies that are helping disabled people. For example, we're keeping children alive today who would have died ten years ago. Many are surviving and entering the public school system and eventually the work force as disabled individuals. Technology also has made it more likely that people will survive serious injury.

The problem we face today is that our technology is incomplete. We seem to think that as long as we do the basics and keep people out of the graveyard, we've done our job. That's simply not the case.

VR technology is a solution looking for a problem. We've been privileged enough to see a problem. I've seen the population being created, I've seen them languish as they fall between the cracks in the service system. VR is a technology that can assist children who are born with problems, who never enjoy independent mobility, who would never otherwise have a chance to make scientific discoveries. It will give them a chance to experience more, learn more, and be more productive.

Angela Buckert-Donelson is a graduate student in Regional Community Planning at Kansas State University and is a regular contributor to VR World.