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Virtual environments for special needs - changing the VR paradigm

Maver, T.W. and Harrison, C.S. and Grant, P.M. (2001) Virtual environments for special needs - changing the VR paradigm. In: Computer aided architectural design futures 2001, proceedings. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 151-159. ISBN 0792370236

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The normal application of Virtual Reality is to the simulation of environments, which are in some way special - remote, hazardous or purely imaginary. This paper describes research and development work which changes the paradigm by simulating perfectly ordinary buildings for special people. Some 15% of the population have some form of physical impairment - a proportion which is likely to rise in line with an ageing population. New legislation, such as the UK Disability Discrimination Act places additional responsibility on building owners to ensure adequate access for people with an impairment and this in turn will place additional responsibility on the architect. Current methods of auditing access for new building are primitive and require the auditor to interpret plans/sections of the proposed building against a checklist of requirements specific to the special need. This paper reports on progress in the use of an immersive VR facility to simulate access to buildings for two broad classes of user: i) those with a mobility impairment; ii) those with visual impairment. In the former case, a wheelchair motion platform has been designed which allows the wheelchair user to navigate the virtual building; a brake and motor connected to the rollers on which the wheelchair sits facilitate the effects of slope and surface resistance. In the latter case, the main categories and degrees of visual impairment can be simulated allowing architects to assess the contribution of form, colour and signage to safe access