Virtual Reality May Open Doors For Workers

Scott Williams

The following article is reprinted by permission from the October 6, 1993 issue of The Seattle Times.

For Rich Walsh, it means freedom.

Freedom to travel the world. To do whatever job he wants. To communicate with anyone, anywhere.

Most of all, to be free from the wheelchair where he has spent most of his time since a 1977 mountain-climbing accident left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Walsh, president of Bothell-based Resource Center for the Handicapped, is an advocate of one of the newest applications of technology - virtual reality, or reality-bending computers - to help disabled people adapt to their environment.

Through the use of special headgear, gloves or other high-tech equipment, people who have lost the ability to walk, talk, see or hear will be able to place themselves into a computer-generated environment where physical and mental disabilities seem to disappear.

With this equipment, people will be able to maneuver objects, walk, or talk with business associates. Business will be conducted on three-dimensional computer screens where disabilities are invisible.

"Through my virtual world, from my wheel chair, I could see South Africa. I am not really there, but I am seeing it in real time," said Walsh, who is no stranger to technology. He already communicates from his wheelchair using twin cellular phones and a computer.

Walsh is not grasping at some futuristic dream. He is among a small group of people who gathered at Bellevue's new convention center this week to explore virtual-reality applications for people with various disabilities - applications that many believe will begin to emerge before the turn of the century.

Virtual reality is "just around the corner," he said. "They're already using some forms of it on F-18 fighter planes."

The market for these specialized products will grow to $10 million in the next five years, predicted Walter Greenleaf, president of California-based Greenleaf Medical Systems, which makes electronic gloves and body suits that translate body movements into computer commands.

Early next century the market should explode. "It will become a billion-dollar industry. In the year 2000-plus, VR will be the major computer-user interface," Greenleaf said.

Although much of the current work on applying virtual reality to help disabled people remains experimental, experts say many disabled people are already using specialized computers to communicate or conduct business.

Computer makers are well aware of the special needs of disabled people. Apple Computer, for instance, already sells equipment that allows people with physical limitations to operate a computer using their head and mouth. "You simply turn and puff instead of pointing and clicking (a mouse)," says Apple's most recent catalog.

From there to virtual reality is a small step, advocates say.

Thomas Furness, who runs the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology (HIT) Laboratory, said, "We can already give a person a virtual body in a virtual space." The HIT Lab is conducting much of the research nationally on virtual reality.

The market for the equipment is an estimated 25 million people, or 10 percent of the U.S. population who have disabilities.

Some are skeptical that funding will surface to launch the new industry. "I can't conceive of it being widely available before the year 2000," Walsh said. "It's going to be expensive. And, like everything else, it's only going to be for the select few at first."

The industry may get its start by offering games or movies based on virtual reality. Once established as a profitable enterprise in the non-disabled community, it could be adapted for those with disabilities, says Suzanne Weghorst, a HIT Lab research scientist.

How quickly an industry will emerge also depends heavily on funding - much of which could come from the federal government, possibly through health-care reform.

Greenleaf, however, points to a different catalyst - the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

"It hinges on whether there is a market for technology for people with disabilities. And that will depend partly on the enforcement of ADA," he said.

"If it is enforced in a meaningful way, it will impel companies that use a lot of technology to employ people with disabilities. And they will purchase the technology to help them employ those individuals," he added.

At its root, he said, the issue is a societal one - "whether we want to put the money into entertainment or into empowering the disabled."