Virtual Wheelchair

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News January 2013

Virtual reality has gone far beyond the realm of Hollywood movies and now helps wheelchair users.

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What do you think of when someone mentions virtual reality? Do you envision playing on a Star Trek holodeck or maybe bending the laws of physics such as in The Matrix?

OK, those examples are a bit of a stretch. However, modern virtual reality technology is now used at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Touch of a Button

Imagine you’re getting ready to receive your first wheelchair. At the clinician’s office, you transfer into the basic model of your preferred power chair. The lights dim, and
suddenly you’re transported back to your house.

You navigate around and realize the joystick doesn’t allow you to turn as quickly as you’d like. With the touch of a button, the clinician loads a new wheelchair profile, and you can now make turns more easily.

A virtual reality system designed by HERL researchers helps new wheelchair users navigate various environments.

The lights go on and then dim again, and you’re suddenly at your job, testing your wheelchair in your office. The profiles that work best for you will be part of the setup of your new wheelchair.


Virtual reality is real, and it’s helping wheelchair users right now in the hands of HERL researchers Deepan Kamaraj and Harshal Mahajan.

A total of 31 people, including 21 recruited from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, have been testing a virtual reality system developed by Kamaraj and Mahajan.

Subjects move up a ramp in front of three large screens and sit on top of a set of rollers. The rollers are fitted with sensors that record the speed, direction, and position of the wheelchair, and feed the information into the computer program that projects a virtual environment onto the screens.

The screens show a place such as the HERL offices. The testers then control their wheelchairs just as if they were moving through the real HERL offices. They try to avoid the same walls, doorways, desks, and occasional person they might encounter if they were actually rolling around there.

Real-Life Environments

If that reminds you of playing a video game, you are absolutely on the right track.

The program was built on top of a C++ gaming engine, and video game modeling software was used to create the virtual HERL environment. The idea was to make a tool for assessment and training that is fun and useful — a tool that allows wheelchair users to try out different wheelchairs and drive settings without the risk of injury.

Training is perhaps the main strength of using a virtual reality system for wheelchairs, especially considering the many virtual environments that can be built by a programmer.

Not just physical objects, but different kinds of terrain can also be created. A new wheelchair user can learn the best way to navigate his or her actual chair across slippery tile, grass, sand, and other difficult environments.

Real-life environments can be recreated by a programmer, so new wheelchair users can learn to navigate their everyday living environments without actually having to be there.

Assessment of wheelchair driving skills is another important use for virtual reality.

Even before training, clinicians need an accurate picture of how well a wheelchair user drives. Virtual reality can help a clinician assess a chair user’s skills without any risk.

More Specific

After many design iterations and user evaluations, however, Kamaraj and Mahajan discovered a problem with their current virtual reality setup: It’s not specific enough.

“We’ve found that in the current virtual reality system it is hard to perceive and capture the exact differences in the driving skills between mediocre and good drivers, and between good and great drivers,” says Kamaraj.

Because of that, HERL has invested in the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment, or CAREN System. This is a completely immersible virtual reality environment where the subject is completely surrounded.

For example, slopes in a particular environment could be safely simulated by tilting the wheelchair. Even sounds can be replicated. This extremely detailed level of customization will allow a greater level of specificity in driving assessment.

More than a video game or a Hollywood concept, virtual reality is real. Researchers like Kamaraj and Mahajan at HERL are putting it to work to make lives better.

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