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Virtual Reality Wheelchair Becoming a Reality thanks to Clarkson Students

An interdisciplinary project at Clarkson University is giving students a valuable opportunity to put to work the engineering and computer skills they haveVirtual Reality learned in the classroom and giving disabled persons in the North Country a better chance at independent mobility.

The idea developed through collaboration between the Clarkson University Department of Physical Therapy and the Potsdam BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services). The virtual reality wheelchair is being designed and built to give local people with disabilities an opportunity to practice operating a power wheelchair by becoming fully immersed in an artificial three-dimensional world that is generated by a computer.

“Power wheelchairs are very expensive and difficult to operate,” said Leslie Russek, professor of physical therapy, who initiated the project in collaboration with Janice Searleman, a faculty member in the Computer Science Department. “Insurance companies are reluctant to purchase them for disabled individuals, since so many patients with limited strength and perception problems have a hard time using them successfully. Our virtual reality wheelchair will give these individuals the opportunity to practice operating a simulated wheelchair before they ever have to maneuver a real one.”

The virtual wheelchair is designed for a client, wearing a head tracker display and sitting in a wheelchair mounted on a moving platform, to use a joystick to navigate his or her way through a computer-generated scene that simulates the experience of traveling through a school.

The design concept is analogous to a flight simulator on which pilots or astronauts train, where users both see the environment and feel their motion through that environment. The goal is to create progressively more challenging virtual environments to simulate more difficult physical environments. The program may even be able to give users a score that demonstrates how well they are using the wheelchair.

The virtual reality team, comprised of four computer science students under the supervision of Searleman, is creating the software design for the project. The students have already created a simple scene with shapes and obstacles for the wheelchair to navigate. They are now writing a “world builder program” so they can begin to generate a more detailed scene with hallways and doorways. A recent donation by IBM of two computers and monitors has helped the team continue its work and progress.

Four mechanical engineering students, working in Professor Eric Thacher’s integrated design course, have designed and are now building the platform that will simulate wheelchair motion, including starting, stopping, turning and hitting bumps. Also involved in the project is a computer engineer who will help hook up the joystick to the platform. All the participants must work together to maintain the integrity of the design. George Fulk, a neurological science faculty member, has joined the project to ensure the design will meet the needs of disabled users.

This, according to student Russell Clarvoe, a member of the virtual reality team, has been one of the most important elements of the project. “Learning to communicate effectively with other members of the team is challenging, but you have to do it in order for a project such as this to be a success.”

An important link in the communication among team members is the two technical communication students who are documenting the progress of the team. This documentation will be important for future students and users who may need to modify the design. These students are also developing an instruction manual.

The virtual team hopes to have most of the project completed this year as many of the pieces to this intricate design puzzle are now being put into place. However, due to the technical sophistication of the design, fine-tuning will continue into next year. When the simulator is completed, it will be housed in Clarkson’s Physical Therapy Department, where faculty and students will use it for research and training potential power chair users.

“Design changes will also be made once we have individuals with disabilities actually testing the virtual wheelchair,” added senior Andy Brassaw. “It is a great learning experience, but it is also rewarding on a personal level to be involved in a project that will have such a positive impact on people’s lives. The virtual wheelchair will improve an individual’s chances of acquiring an electric wheelchair by demonstrating to an insurance company that they can operate the equipment successfully. Training on a virtual wheelchair will also enhance the confidence of the individual who must operate one in everyday life.”

Photo caption: IBM Manager and Clarkson Alumna Robilee Smith, wearing a head tracker display, tests out a computer-generated virtual world created by the Clarkson virtual reality team as part of an interdisciplinary project at Clarkson. Smith visited Clarkson’s virtual reality laboratory when presenting a donation of equipment from IBM.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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