Inclusiveness, Special Needs, and VR

Inclusiveness, Special Needs, and VR

We have recently begun to highlight a young man using #TsubasaVR, and we have already gotten the question, “Who is Tsubasa?” With pleasure, I would like to introduce the world to this remarkable young fellow.
Tsubasa is a Japanese man, in his mid-20s. He lives on his own and works in Osaka and is extremely close with his loving mother and sister. Tsu, as he is sometimes called, is a bit of a ham, loves Elvis, and enjoys singing and performing. In 2008, he even went to Canada and had a musical performance. He is an
adventurous soul, not shy, and speaks a bit of English. He has been connected with the Veative family for more than a dozen years, well before the time that Veative was founded. Tsubasa also has cerebral palsy.
Over a recent lunch, he was both excited to learn about VR, and disappointed that I hadn’t brought it with me that day. I promised that I would have one in hand during our next meeting, but let him know that it wouldn’t just be about fun and games. I needed his help. You see, Veative has been approached a number of times by special needs teachers and those looking to increase inclusivity. This can be for learners who have physical challenges requiring special assistance, while also considering those with autism, ADHD, and so on. As educators ourselves, heightening inclusion is important to us all. This is the reason why we became involved with the UNICEF Innovation Fund and developed a module set that was open source and available to everyone. That project lead to the use of WebXR when the pandemic hit, allowing for extended use of our STEM library, even remotely. So with this task in mind, we planned to meet, try it out, and see how Tsubasa could help out Veative.
We set out to meet and he was very willing to help, on one condition… that I buy lunch at an Indian restaurant (he is not shy!). With a full belly, we got to work. The first impression, like everyone, was “Wow!” I don’t ever tire of that. The first stop for us was a tour of Taj Mahal. In a pandemic, and in a chair, this is a hard thing to do. In the VR, it is easy. He was able to walk around the mausoleum, and got a good sense of being there. However, there were a few things that became challenges. One was the controller, and the fine motor skills needed for that. For many students of varying ability, this won’t be an issue. For Tsubasa, who has articulation in his right hand, this was somewhat doable, but also frustrating. Veative has already looked at some input devices, and one with a vertical joystick and accompanying buttons, which can be mounted on the arm rest, seems like the best option. It was not available on this day, but we will see about the next meeting.

Although Tsubasa was given the ability to walk inside the environment, there was another issue which presented itself. How do you control the direction of movement? There is forward and backward locomotion available by using the controller, but left and right movement is needed to fully encompass that sense of movement. For someone able to stand, simply rotating in one spot can satisfy that requirement. For someone seated, using a swivel chair does the trick. But for someone in a wheelchair, there needs to be another option. In the past, we designed that kind of movement into the controller, allowing the user to rotate by manipulating a joystick left and right. We will see what options are available to us now.
A final challenge for Tsubasa was in staying upright, in his chair. This changed the views he could take in, and altered engagement within the environment. This should be an easier issue to tackle, but one that is just as important to consider.
With lessons learned, we ended the session, but only after his mother and sister had their chances to get into this virtual world. It is a technology that everyone is interested in, and one that provides an easy level of engagement. And it’s fun!
Tsubasa has now had his first experience with VR, and it won’t be his last. We will continue to work on his ability to independently explore within the VR, and offer up chances for him to explore places around the world, and learn new things about science, math and language. With Tsubasa’s help, we look forward to opening up new worlds for learners everywhere, and ensure that inclusivity is not just a catchphrase, but an ideal worth pursuing.

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