Virtually Normal - A New Era For The Disabled?

12/11/2016 07:56 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2016
Virtual Reality with Oculus Rift
Virtual Reality with Oculus Rift

It's the holiday season, and that means along with the caroling, cold weather (for some), and the street corner Santas, there is also the practice of giving and receiving that most of us engage in. It's something that we all both dread and eagerly look forward to, because getting presents is great but buying the right gift for someone can be nerve racking! So, this got me thinking, what would I want someone to give me, as a disabled individual, this Christmas? Since I'm a gadget-head, I love technology, so it's a no brainier, but it also made me realize that there is something happening in the realm of technology that may end up changing the way people like me can experience the world. I'm talking about virtual reality.

Now, you may or may not have heard about the VR (virtual reality) revolution that has been happening for the last year or two, but let me give you a bit of a primer just in case. There are many different ways to experience a virtual world, and the industry is advancing in leaps and bounds every day. For the regular Joe, virtual reality can be a novel experience and provide a tremendously fun and entertaining outing. For physically and mentally handicapped individuals, though, virtual reality means something much more important. It provides a platform to experience everyday activities and events that are out of reach, and gives us a chance to do amazing things we never thought possible. So, for those of you with handicapped friends or family, I present a small buyer's guide.

First, you'd need to buy an actual VR unit, something that you wear like goggles to basically trick your brain into believing you are in a different place than just sitting in your chair. You can do this with the HTC Vive, a unit made by people who been making video games for many years or you can do it using the Oculus Rift, a competing unit who's main investor is the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Both of these units allow you to experience and interact with the virtual world, but you will need to purchase a fairly powerful PC computer with specialized hardware to power both of these units. On the other hand, if you don't want to spend a month's salary, you can always buy a PlayStation 4 and a PSVR unit, and experience virtual reality that way. It works almost as well as the two PC computer-based units, and the price is about one-third of what you'd spend on the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift. This is an attractive route, to be sure, but you also have to take into consideration that there are only a small number of virtual reality titles on PlayStation, while on PC there are hundreds of VR experiences you can enjoy. Finally, the cheapest and most common route is to use your Samsung or similar smart phone to act as the screen in a set of plastic VR goggles. This allows you to experience virtual worlds without interacting with them very much, but it will give you a good idea of what is possible with this new and exciting technology.

So, now that you've decided to dive in to VR, don't think that the experience ends once you get your headset. There is an entire world of technology out there, dedicated to allowing you to enjoy experiences at home that you'd never be able to otherwise. For example, one of the areas in which VR shines is software that allows you to drive race cars and fly airplanes from the comfort of your chair. To help sell this virtual experience there are things you can add to make your brain believe you are truly there. First, you may want to add a steering wheel and a set of pedals to your driving setup. Companies like Logitech and Fanatec offer this type of hardware for sale at many different price points. Personally, I have used both of these companies products and can tell you that they greatly enhance the experience. If you cannot use your legs, don't worry, most of the wheels comes with paddle shifters built right into the wheel itself. Just like a real car that a disabled person would drive, you can assign any function to these paddles such as acceleration or braking! It makes the virtual reality experience that much more immersive.

One of the things I've discovered on my virtual reality quest is that often, you feel the most immersed in your virtual cocoon when the little things that you may not even realize go on, are added to your experience. What do I mean by this? Well, After looking for ways to help my entire body experience the VR effect, I discovered a software called SimVibe, made by a company called Simxperience. They were kind enough to provide me with a sample of their software to review, and, frankly, I think it has great potential. This program, which runs on PC computers, uses the sound that your computer produces, as well as the actual game data from certain games, to vibrate and jostle your seat, desk, and any other items you desire, based on what is happening inside your virtual reality screen. For instance, when you are driving in a virtual race, you will feel the engine vibrate, and you will feel the car shift. If you are a bad driver, you will feel every collision and crash as well! It works so well, that I have no idea how I lived without it. All it requires is the installation of a buttkicker speaker (also known as a transducer), which is a basically a speaker designed to vibrate you. It can be mounted to anything, and the software does the rest. If you are really adventurous, they even sell a vibrating vest you can wear, the Kor-FX! Setup is as easy as having SimVibe auto detect the games you have installed, and for most popular entries, they have also provided default settings that work well. If you want to adjust any of these settings, you can do as easy as moving a slider with the mouse. Of course, cranked it all up to high! I know It may sound like a small thing to add but this one piece of software creates a feeling of realism when using any virtual experience, that I can't say enough about it. Imagine getting hit in virtual reality and feeling it in your chest! I just keep thinking of that old catch phrase - "The future is now!" For someone like me, who will never get to experience the thrill of driving a race car at high speeds or riding a thrilling roller coaster, SimVibe is priceless, and a very simple addition that will ramp up your VR adventure tenfold.

We are only in the infancy of home virtual reality, but from how far it's already come, I can imagine that within our lifetimes we will be able to put on a small pair of glasses and drive a Ferrari down the Pacific Coast Highway, or hang-glide in the mountains of Chile. It's going to be an indispensable part of our lives, and it has applications that reach far beyond gaming. Education, remote surgery, spending time with family far away - the list goes on and on. Like I said before, VR may be a novelty to the regular Joe, but for the disabled, it could very well be the answer to some of the most disappointing limitations we have to endure. I suggest you give it a try as soon as possible, and Happy Holidays to all!

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