Virtual Reality: Close Enough Is Not Enough.

Chances are you’ve never heard of the Sensorama. Invented by American cinematographer Morton Heilig in 1962, the Sensorama required a viewer to sit in a chair, don 3-D glasses, then stick their head into a large box (similar to a vintage arcade game). Inside, the immersed viewer saw a film augmented by stereo sound, physical vibrations, and even specific smells. The intended effect was for the viewer to feel as if they were actually within the movie.

The Sensorama never really took off, but Heilig’s invention is considered one of the earliest functioning efforts in virtual reality.

Today, VR has taken off. The technology is only starting to explore its full potential and finding valuable applications in health care, education, and even the workplace. Walmart, for example, uses VR to train retail staff for Black Friday, instructing them on how best to navigate a demanding in-store situation and eager customers. VR has evolved beyond entertainment and is widely proclaimed by its boosters as the means through which everyone can access new worlds and experiences. 

But everyone should really mean everyone, and as VR expands its possibilities, the tech is also discovering its limitations. VR’s current strengths and glaring weaknesses are never more evident than within the disability community.

At first, glance, viewing VR as a Godsend for the disability community is tempting. To explore a world without limitation, provide career training in simulated situations tailored to address a user’s specific needs, or assist in improving motor skills and muscle development, VR supports people with disabilities in ways that seem less like science and more like wish fulfillment. People of any ability would love to fly like Iron Man at least once in their life, and there’s substantial proof that even imagining an activity assists the brain in enacting the stimulated movement. VR has also shown promise in helping people regulate anxiety and practice social skills.

Conversely, virtual reality also allows those without a disability to have some view of what daily life can be like for members of the disability community. The tech has been described as an “empathy machine” based on emotional responses from simulations of macular degeneration, dementia, and mobility restrictions.

While empathy is a sincere and valid reaction, it falls well short of true understanding. After all, how real can the experience of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes be if the user knows they can always put their original pair back on? For the disability community and those supporting them, there could be an over-reliance on virtual reality because it can create safe environments free of uncertainty. How real can a predictable and risk-free world truly be?

“VR has a place in helping the disability community prepare, but it cannot replace the human experience of the real world,” offers Coleman Nee, CEO of Triangle, Inc., a leading nonprofit providing employment, residential and social services to the disability community. “There is a dignity of risk. If we wrap our people with disabilities who haven’t had some of these experiences in bubble wrap, nothing will ever happen to them, but that means nothing will ever happen to them.”

“VR has a place in helping the disability community prepare, but it cannot replace the human experience of the real world,”

Coleman Nee, CEO of Triangle, Inc.

One example of the real-world experiences Triangle provides is Beach:Ability. Clients packed sunscreen, towels, and flip-flops for a day at the beach made fully accessible by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR)’s Universal Access Program. Beach wheelchairs, mats, and floating wheelchairs provided those who had never even seen the ocean before with the amazing sensory experience of feeling the sea breeze, smelling the ocean air, and feeling the sand for the first time. Said Nee, “Watching so many of them get into the ocean – some for the first time in their lives or in decades – really encapsulated what the day was all about.”

There’s little doubt about virtual reality’s possibilities within the disability community. The technology has already proven itself as a valuable tool with the capacity to enable so many people in ways that were unimaginable 15 years ago. And despite its impact, major accessibility issues remain. After all, what good are goggles to the visually impaired? Or a set of controllers for someone with motor skills challenges or lacking typically functioning hands or arms? 

VR can’t do everything. It can’t replace the unique feeling of a cool sea breeze blowing over someone’s face on a hot summer day or, more importantly, substitute for a hug, touch, or guidance from someone close. Nor should it. For Coleman Nee, “Virtual Reality can be used to prepare people for the experience they’ll ultimately have, rather than replacing it altogether.”

For the disability community, close enough should not be enough. There’s undeniable value in virtual reality, but it’s ultimately no substitute for what’s real.

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