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Exploring Virtual Reality Through the Lens of Disability

This lesson is an interdisciplinary approach to introducing Virtual Reality (VR) immersions through the lens of disability studies.

Published onJul 21, 2021
Exploring Virtual Reality Through the Lens of Disability
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Summary

This lesson is an interdisciplinary approach to introducing Virtual Reality (VR) immersions through the lens of disability studies.

Session Specifics

This lesson is an interdisciplinary approach to introducing Virtual Reality (VR) immersions through the lens of disability studies. VR is one form of immersive technology under the umbrella term Extended Reality (XR), that also includes Augmented Reality and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). The plan presented here focuses on free or low-cost VR immersions that can be implemented in one long workshop session or several short class demonstrations. Each VR experience is paired with alternate forms of media to inform the conversation and provide resources for further research. 

This lesson is not intended to represent how all people experience disability and should be framed by conversations about how limiting media representations of disability can be. We imagine this to be an activity within a larger unit on disability that includes discipline-specific theory and criticism. In this lesson, we are offering VR as a lens through which to experience narrative and deconstruct assumptions about disability. Therefore, the experiences and conversations should be grounded in disability scholarship. If you are looking for a good place to start, we recommend The Disability Studies Reader by Lennard Davis.

Similarly, this is not meant to be a fully formed VR initiative, but rather an introduction used as a catalyst for further exploration. We attempted to offer easy-to-access, and simple to implement resources. Ideally, instructors will offer a basic VR tutorial before this experience, using applications such as the introductory videos from Google Cardboard, or with an intuitive application like Google Earth or Rec Room. 

VR in the Classroom

Types of virtual reality

It is useful to understand the ways that the VR experience is being presented in this lesson plan, and these terms may be useful to present to the participants of your workshop to help facilitate conversation. We have also incorporated these terms into the discussion questions at the end of this lesson. 

Some of the resources utilize what is known as Cinematic VR. Cinematic VR creates virtual reality content through immersive cinematic or filmmaking techniques to set up the narrative experience. Cinematic VR often places the VR participant in a passive position in relation to the media subject.  Simulation VR utilizes techniques to simulate aspects of reality—real or fictional--where the VR participant takes an active role with relation to the subject or media. While the goals of both types rely on immersion and sensory cues of embodiment, in these modes the participation experience shifts from that of sensory viewer to actor, reflecting a range of goals by the platform developer and potential experiences of the VR participant. 

The VR experience can also be broken down into that which is representational versus that which is therapeutic. The goal of Representational VR is the creation of an immersive experience and sensory embodiment to communicate ideas or tell stories. Therapeutic VR is designed for the treatment of physical, psychological, social and other conditions. 

VR technology

Access and use of VR devices will also shape the experiences participants will have in these exercises. We have focused on the use of mobile devices and inexpensive headsets in this lesson in order to accommodate the widest range of users. Google Cardboard and similar devices will provide a low barrier to access for those familiar with using mobile applications on their phone. The use of a smartphone, VR goggles (which typically cost between $5 and $35), and headphones provides the opportunity to experience VR media without individual or institutional investment in more sophisticated VR equipment (with prices starting around $400). These devices are best suited to cinematic VR, particularly when used with personal headsets, and will offer some capabilities for simulation VR experience through tracked eye movement. 

The use of equipment such as HTC Vive and Oculus Rift or Quest will expand the capabilities for simulation VR with the addition of hand controllers, trackers and other accessories that provide a more immediate sense of spatial and tactile feedback. One step further is the use of haptic gloves, vests and body suits which provide sensory feedback to different parts of the body. For these users, we are including supplemental information on accessing experiences through advanced equipment. We have also provided extension activities which are formatted for use with more advanced equipment.

It is important to note that currently many VR headsets are inaccessible to some users who have physical disabilities. You should consider the participants you will be working with in advance, and prepare accommodations such as extended head straps, rolling chairs, and headsets with adjustable eye width settings. It is also smart to provide motion sickness candy and/or bracelets for those in need. Participants with limited mobility may need assistance putting their headsets on and moving in the virtual space. This is why we consistently recommend pairing participants together to work through the immersions. 

Instructional Partners

We highly recommend partnering with your accessibility or diversity officers on campus to provide your institutional accessibility statements, identify campus partners, and to help shape the language used in your approach.  Each institution may vary, but most will have offices dedicated to learning resources, disabilities services and staff in instructional technology dedicated to accessibility services. The online resources provided as an Appendix (2) may also provide planning and instructional support. 

Audience

The primary audience is undergraduate or graduate students, but we have found this is also an effective introduction for faculty and staff who are unfamiliar with VR technology. 

Curricular Context

This series can be adapted for a wide range of disciplinary contexts, including the humanities, social sciences, and medical sciences. We purposely included applications developed for a wide range of industries and academic fields to the widest potential range of users. 

You will notice that we have provided a traditional form of media to pair with each VR experience. This was inspired by the New York Times offering print articles to pair with each of their journalistic VR experiences, which allow for a multimodal exploration of the topic. We find that engaging students with an article, radio show, or podcast helps to contextualize the VR application and provides a path toward more in-depth research. It is your choice if you would like participants to engage with the provided pairing before or after the VR experience. Introducing the material before the VR session will frame the experience and help to provide “trigger warnings” about the content, but it may also spoil an unadulterated immersion or could cloud the user's judgement before engaging in the virtual space. These readings can and should be supplemented with course or discipline specific content.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Define the basic terms of disability studies and apply these terms when describing and analyzing VR experiences.

  2. Experience a variety of VR applications that introduce the potential of this technology in terms of embodiment and sensory stimulation and deprivation. 

  3. Evaluate the potential of VR technology to evoke empathy. 

  4. Encourage critical examination of the risks and limitations of VR in sensory/embodiment representational capabilities.  

Materials

For this session you will need:

  • A Google Cardboard VR viewer, smartphone, and audio headset.

  • A laptop with sound and a projector for review of paired media.

  • Notebooks or a shared document.

Preparation

This lesson plan has been devised to introduce VR-capable equipment using Google Cardboards or similar low-cost headsets paired with smart phones. To begin, select two or three of the applications recommended here and ask participants to download the content and prepare their mobile devices ahead of time. Participants might need basic instructions on assembling their Cardboards and installing the applications. When possible, address these needs before the session begins with quick videos or step-by-step guides sent to participants via email or in a shared space online. A workshop leader or capable student might be designated to help troubleshoot at the beginning of the session. Those with persistent difficulties or incompatible devices should be instructed to share and take turns with others who were able to load the materials easily.

Sample instructions:

Equipment preparation

  • Put the instructions and wifi information in a visible place. 

  • Provide community sanitization supplies.

  • Make sure phones are fully charged, and that you have working headphones available.

  • Most smartphones will fit inside most VR goggles. Checking manufacturer recommendations in advance and removing phones from their cases will prevent most technical issues. 

  • Download all applications and videos in advance (if possible) to prevent wifi/data disruption.

  • Turn up your brightness and sound. Turn on auto-rotation. 

  • Enable “Do Not Disturb” on phone settings so notifications do not interfere with the experience. 

Participant Preparation

  • Be aware that VR can trigger physical/neurological and/or psychological reactions in some participants. If physically able, move around when experiencing the application. You can either stand or use a swivel chair. If you sit still, you are more likely to experience motion sickness. Make sure that your work area is clear of obstructions or other objects that could trip or injure you while you are wearing the headset. 

  • Some participants will require headsets that can accommodate eyewear, hair volume and other physical attributes. Investigate these needs in advance of the session. 

  • If time permits, have participants find a partner to help troubleshoot and to engage in a “first impressions” discussion after each experience. 

  • Have water, mints, or ginger candy available in case of nausea, and recommend anyone who has sensory disorders to take the appropriate medication (for example Dramamine) ahead of time. 

  • We recommend using hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes between each use. There are VR masks and UV sanitation devices available for purchase.

Session Outline

  • After preparing the space, start with a discussion of ableism and normalcy. Again, we recommend framing this with theory, such as the work of Lennard Davis (cited above). Ask each participant to make a list of ways they are “below average or disabled” and then make a list of ways in which they are “extraordinary or above average.”  Remind the audience that the concept of “average” is statistically derived, and not necessarily representative of everyone. For example, are you above or below average in terms of height, weight, vision, age, education level, etc.? 

  • Have everyone experience two or three VR applications and give them time to briefly chat with their partners and take down some “first impressions” notes. Have workshop facilitators circulate to troubleshoot and make sure everyone is safe. 

  • Next bring the group back together for a guided discussion. You can do this as a whole or distribute prompts for a think-pair-share activity. These would also make effective discussion board prompts in a shared writing space. 

First Impression Activity

To be discussed with a partner in between each application before coming back as a full group. 

  • What app did you try?

  • What do you think the creator of the app wanted you to experience/learn?

  • How successful was the app creator in reaching their goal?

  • Did your understanding, perspective, or feelings about the topic change as a result of the XR experience?  If so, how?

  • Who do you think would benefit from trying this experience?

  • What were the most memorable parts of the experience?

  • What was most effective part of this application?

  • What was least effective? 

  • What were the shortcomings of the technology?

  • How would you improve on this app to better achieve the creator's goals?

Applications

It is important to note that both the VR applications and paired media may suffer from link rot. Materials are available as of February 2021 but are under the control of the artists and publishers who own each experience. As with all new media, formats and platforms are likely to evolve over time.  [Editor’s note: whenever possible, links have been saved with Perma.cc, a service that captures web pages to preserve them from link rot.]

Notes on Blindness

Notes on Blindness - A 360/VR experience

Inception VR. (2017, December 13). Notes on Blindness - A 360/VR Experience. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tb5DwAZIQZw

Tags: Cinematic VR, Representational VR

From the developer:

In 1983, after decades of steady deterioration, John Hull became totally blind. To help him make sense of the upheaval in his life, he began documenting his experiences on audio cassette. These original diary recordings form the basis of this six-part VR experience, an interactive nonfiction using new forms of storytelling and gameplay mechanics to explore his cognitive and emotional experience of blindness. Each chapter will address a memory, a moment and a specific location from John’s audio diary, using binaural audio and real time 3D animations to create a fully immersive experience in a ‘world beyond sight’.

This experience can be downloaded to mobile devices using the free Within VR app. Find additional resources here

Pair with Radiolab’s “Seeing in Tongues” broadcast:

A 2011 radio program about the story of Emilie Gossiaux, an art student who was hit by a truck and fell into a coma. Though Emilie was permanently blinded in the accident, she has recently been able to see again — in a very different way.

Questions for Notes on Blindness:

  1. How did the VR experience match the description provided by the experience of Emilie Gossiaux in “Seeing in Tongues”? 

  2. How did the creators use lighting and sound to direct your experience?

  3. Did you feel empathy for the narrator? Were you able to better understand the experience of losing the ability to see through this immersion?

  4. How would your experience of Notes on Blindness be different if you were only listening to the narration (as you did with the Radiolab episode)?  If you were reading this as a story? How does the medium of VR change your ability to connect to the narrator? 

  5. This experience documents the narrator’s emerging perception of “acoustic space,” where the idea of space, traditionally understood in visual terms, is reconfigured to the sensation of sound presence and physical activity. Might there be other types of sensory experience that could translate to a new understanding of space? What challenges would this present to the design of VR experiences? 

  6. Did this experience prompt you to reflect on the ways in which you rely on auditory cues when navigating the world? How would the loss of visual cues change your relationship to sound?

2. Beethoven's Fifth

Beethoven's Fifth (Full VR film)

Philharmonia Orchestra (London, UK). (2017, September 25). Beethoven’s Fifth (Full VR  film). [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFXW00BUuW8

Tags: Cinematic VR, Representational VR

From the developer:

A sensory exploration of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which he composed while losing his ability to hear. This uses both cinematic and simulation VR. 

This can be experienced on a Google Cardboard through the YouTube app or accessed through a browser. 

Pair with this interview with the artist who created the experience.

Questions for Beethoven’s Fifth:

  1. Did this immersion change your experience of this piece of music? 

  2. Do you think choosing a symphony written by someone with hearing loss helped to make this experience more or less authentic? Did it help you conceptualize how those with sensory processing disorders might experience music? 

  3. Did you find the combination of simulation and cinematic VR helpful or distracting? Why? What parts were the most/least effective in your opinion? 

  4. Research and review the background materials on this experience. Is it known if someone with a hearing impairment was involved in its creation? Explore the potential consequences of including or excluding those with a related disability in the creation process for this type of media.

3. The Party

The Party: a virtual experience of autism – 360 film

The Guardian. (2017, October 7). The Party: A Virtual Experience of Autism-360 film. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtwOz1GVkDg

Tags: Cinematic VR, Representational VR

From the developer:

What is it like to be autistic? The Guardian’s latest VR film offers a glimpse of how a person on the autism spectrum copes with a stressful environment.

Can be downloaded to mobile devices using the free The Guardian VR app, and it can also be accessed through the Oculus store.

Pair with this interview with explanation.

Questions for The Party:

  1. Did you find the visual manipulation of the space an effective technique to simulate autism? 

  2. How is this immersion both illuminating and limiting in terms of representation of people on the spectrum and their experiences? 

  3. How did the first-person perspective shape your experience of the party?

  4. We know that everyone on the autism spectrum experiences autism differently; it is not universal, therefore how could we, as the audience, assess the effectiveness of this representation? What might our assessment reveal about the assumptions we make about the experience of living with autism? How could the creators assess the success of the experience?

4. InMind VR

InMind VR

Tenik. (2015, February 19). InMind VR. [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfnOfoXzfWM

Tags: Simulation VR, Representational VR

The InMind VR app can be downloaded to mobile devices through the app store or played on a headset.

From the developer:

InMind is a short adventure with arcade elements designed for the Google Cardboard. It’s also playable without any special viewer. InMind allows the player to experience the journey into a patient’s brain in search of the neurons that cause mental disorder. Submerge into the microworld and experience the miracles of the human mind. The future is nigh. The humanity is standing upon the brink of a new era where modern healthcare makes tremendous scientific advancements. With the help of nanotechnologies a surgical prototype bathyscaphe allows its operator to shrink to a micro level and travel inside the patient’s body. (Cited from unimersiv.com)

Disclaimer: this will likely induce motion sickness in sensitive participants. Do not start with this application. Make sure all users move around the room while engaging in this application. 

Pair with this article that outlines some of the ways VR is used to treat depression.

Questions for InMind VR:

  1. This application shows depression at the cellular level. How can this simulation help dispel common misconceptions about mental illness?

  2. Did you find this game fun and engaging? Can educational games also be fun? What makes a good educational game? How could this game be more effective at conveying information about mental illness?

  3. Did this make you feel sick? Does this feeling discourage you from using VR applications? 

General Questions

To be used as prompts for informal discussion, however, these could be adapted as a formal writing assignment or questions for an online discussion board forum for assessment purposes. 

  • If this was your first time trying VR, what surprised you the most about it?

  • Based on your experiences with these apps, how would you describe VR to someone your age who had never tried it before? How would you describe VR to someone younger than 5? To a grandparent?

  • Did unexpected physical sensations occur during your VR experience? Did unexpected emotional reactions occur during your VR experience? How did your experiences relate to the experience of the narrative subject in the media, if there was a subject?

  • An activity some schools/organizations do is for seeing individuals to wear a blindfold for a day and have another seeing person act as their guide to keep them safe, in order for them to be able to understand what it is like to go through life without being able to see. What are the benefits and drawbacks of such an activity?  How does it compare to using an XR app like “Notes on Blindness”?

  • People with a shared disability do not always experience their disability in the same way. As an app creator, how would you use that knowledge to create a better app?

Conclusion

After experiencing currently available technologies, we encourage participants to move from consumers to makers. Consider envisioning your own VR application. In what ways can we change the world for the better using this emerging technology? 

Think about something you (or someone close to you) experienced (a disability, illness, trauma, etc.) that you wish other people had a better understanding of so that they could better empathize with you. Imagine designing an XR app so that others could share that experience. 

  • First, dream big – with no restrictions – and imagine an application that could address a disabled community whose needs are not met currently by traditional media. How can VR enter that space to either increase awareness, understanding or be used to heal?

  • What are they key aspects of that experience you would want to make sure others experienced?

  • How would you get those aspects across to others in an XR app?

  • What aspects do you think would be difficult or impossible to adequately convey in an XR app?

  • How would your design of the app differ depending on your intended audience for the app -- people your age, children, people who don't speak the same language as you, people of a different socio-economic or ethnic background? Then, think more practically about how your industry or discipline could be made more accessible through the use of VR.

We hope this lesson plan leads to generative and critical conversations about the potential of VR to be both representational and therapeutic. We want to inspire a future generation of makers to enter the XR industry to make this technology more diverse and accessible.

Follow-up Reading and Extension Activities

This section is specifically for those who have access to more sophisticated hardware, such as an Oculus, HTC Vive, or PSVR headset with haptic feedback controllers. Unlike the applications above, some of these may require that you pay a small fee or download materials to your gaming computer. Therefore, to engage with these materials you will need to prepare in advance, and you might consider working with the team in charge of the VR equipment on your campus to test the applications you wish to use. 

These experiences are considerably more interactive and represent the therapeutic applications of virtual reality. 

1. Improving Naloxone Access in Philadelphia (INAP)

Tags: Cinematic VR, Therapeutic VR

An eight-minute virtual reality Narcan training session created by University of Pennsylvania nursing students. The FDA-approved nasal spray, Narcan, can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose—real or suspected—in fewer than five minutes. It’s available without a prescription, carried by most major pharmacy chains, and covered by many different types of insurance. In theory, it’s available to just about anyone. The problem, however, is that most people don’t know about it or, if they do, they’re unfamiliar with how to use it or what to do after it’s administered. A recent pilot study showed this VR training is as effective as in-person simulation training for health care providers.

Pair with this news coverage of the project.

2. Touching Masterpieces

Tags:    Simulation VR, Therapeutic VR, Haptic devices

VR experience of accessing fine art for the blind and visually impaired created by use of a pair of haptic gloves. 3D model downloads of 3 sculptures from The National Gallery of Prague.

3. Phantom Limb Pain

Tags: Simulation VR, Therapeutic VR, Haptic devices

Immersive technology for treating phantom limb pain. 

If you were able to try both Google Cardboard (or similar phone-based headset) as well as a dedicated VR headset (like Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive), how did those experiences compare?

Additional Materials

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