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February 23, 1996


Creating A Virtual Reality

“SOFTWARE DESIGNED BY ND ENGINEERS WILL INCREASE FREEDEM OF THE DISABLED”

By John Galvin  

Would you like to fly across campus with a blink of your eye? Or how about dial a phone number with a twitch of your nose?

It may seem a little far-fetched, but the College of Engineering at Notre Dame, in conjunction with the department of Computer Science and Engineering, are researching and developing a Virtual Reality-Human Interface to allow just about anyone to maneuver in the virtual world.

 
Beyond the video games and fancy software, virtual reality has the potential to free millions of people from the limitation of disabilities.

Whether they suffer from a broken ankle or a severe neurological disorder, the computer will allow anyone to live independently. Recent technology has made available sensors which, when applied to the body can act as a hand or foot in the virtual world.

“The idea,” explains Notre Dame professor Dr. Berry, “is to create a 3-D virtual environment that the handicapped person can maneuver around in with similar freedom that a natural person would have walking around in a real environment.”

The research team is led by Drs. Berry and Uhran, who overlook about eighteen graduate and undergraduate students involved in the virtual reality development. A Notre Dame graduate, Dawn Teresa Parkot, is doing her thesis work on this project.

She has severe Cerebral Palsy and is substantially disabled. Having extremely limited muscle control and acute vision and speech impairments, she acts as both a researcher and a tester for the human-interface device.

Parkot’s motivation and ability intrigued not only Notre Dame Faculty but also IBM to provide funds for computers and software that could make her achievements more attainable for others with similar obstacles.

“What makes Dawn special,” explained Dr. Berry, “is that she managed to get through the system and get an education, most people in her circumstance get frustrated and give-up. She is the only one she knows, in her position who has gone for an advanced degree.”

The development of virtual-reality technology will facilitate in her current aspiration, as well as, her plans for a Master’s in Computer Science and Engineering, and a PhD in her favorite subject, Physics.

 

The research team is divided into three groups:

The first group is working with Parkot and the human-interface device, learning how to run the software and receive signals.

They are able to use signals from muscle contractions, eyelid movement and brain waves to create musical sounds, and to eventually control movements in a virtual environment.

The second group is dedicated to designing virtual-reality settings

A virtual office with telephone, notepad and desk lamp. A virtual representation of Parkot’s apartment, along with a complete virtual campus.

The third group works to integrate the efforts of the first two groups. They take information from the virtual world and turn it into real information and signals that can be used to create a voice-text or movements.

This semester, the team hopes to create a simple virtual office space with a 3-D key board, mouse and screen, and to associate them with their real world counterparts. They plan on Parkot actually being integrated into the system by early as this summer.

The system would allow Parkot to turn on and off lights, control television channels, and possibly audibly communicate words.

Once the software has reached a useful level, her home will be setup, so that she can have full access to the technology through her computer system.

This will enhance her ability to pursue her degrees and will provide her a chance to evaluate the system for long term design flaws.

Eventually, they look towards generating a package that can calibrate itself to individual users.

The “package,” when developed, seems unlimited in its potential uses. In about ten years, Dr. Berry claims, the system could allow people with disabilities like Parkot, to live independently, and to even drive a car.

Furthermore, Dr. Berry predicts that severe spinal injury victims who have lost control over anything except their eyelid could potentially move a wheelchair, audibly communicate, write letters and control their real life through a virtual world.

Future development will undoubtedly link this hardware with robotics, which would allow anyone to order a robot to water the flowers or cut the lawn.

Notre Dame is researching and developing this system to benefit not only future disabled students, but to advance the human-computer relationship.

Students with various disabilities will gain freedom through a more maneuverable and personal environment.

Once the system is developed the Computer Science Engineers plan on to use some of the systems in local schools to aid in all levels of communication and education.

“Due to the physical challenges of a disabled person, it takes a very long time to educate them,” reminds Dr. Berry, “this kind of technology will bring the time of education closer to the level to a ‘normal student,’” and, therefore, facilitate in the education of the several ingenious yet physically challenged people, like Parkot.

 

Read also:Controlling Computers with Neural Signals