COMBINING EMPATHY AND VR FOR WHEELCHAIR USERS. By Fjord Makeshop
In Makeshop, we’ve been experimenting with ways that virtual reality (VR) can facilitate empathy to help people better understand unfamiliar situations. There is a definite challenge with this, however, as VR can often trivialize experiences by turning them into a game of sorts. Our mission was to overcome this obstacle and, through our Design Study process, find a way to apply VR and immersive experiences to create more understanding for the unknown – in this case, using a wheelchair.
IMMERSION TO TRAINING
We began by conducting interviews with wheelchair-user friends and colleagues. Certain patterns and common problems emerged throughout our discussions: stories about disastrous first days in wheelchairs, the challenges of understanding a new complex environment, navigating areas where pedestrians don’t understand the needs of wheelchair users, difficulties developing an understanding for angles of concrete, height of curbs, etc.
As one person said: “I think the worst thing about not being able to walk is adjusting to how slowly you have to do everything. You have to wait longer to use the bathroom, wait longer to go to bed, go to the kitchen, stand up, sit down, you have to put on your shows slower than normal, everything you’re used to doing fast you’re now doing slow.”
We realized that if we were going to use VR to tackle this problem, we needed to ensure it didn’t feel like a game; we did not want to create a superficial or insensitive experience. This led us quickly to the idea of a Wheelchair Training Program – a simulator offering a safe way to engage with a complex new environment and serving as a way to understand the new obstacles and issues.
It immediately became clear to us that details matter, especially when navigating highly populated urban spaces, and that we needed to develop a proof of concept which would be respectful, compelling and immersive. We saw in the research that wheelchair users face several common challenges: articulate steering, spatial relationships, and negotiating obstacles. These could all be confronted in the process of negotiating a single intersection. With these ideas and this basic framework in place, we set out to create the prototype.
Many talented people contributed to this from study, to service to proof of concept. Thanks to: Alwin Tong (VR Development); Rob Brogan, Whitney Braunstein, Habiba Sugich and Kristen Kersh (Design Research); Zoey Forbath (Business Design); Roman Kalantari (Creative Technology Director); John Jones (SVP Design Strategy).