Virtual Reality Makes Skiing Possible for the Disabled

Helena Guglielmino |
Evan Gadda, UNR student experiencing Burning Man and skiing for the first time. Still from “Walking with Reality” 

“Virtual Reality is the ultimate empathy machine. These experiences are more than documentaries. They’re opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”
– Chris Milk, Virtual Reality Entrepreneur

The first time I experienced Virtual Reality (VR), I was shocked. I know it wasn’t logical, but I felt like I would be able to touch the characters or features of the video I was watching. It is much greater than a 3D movie because VR isn’t confined to a screen. By being able to look around, and having an environment unfold in a consistent motion, it puts the video in a personal perspective and the viewer becomes a part of the movie.

University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) is captivated by the possibilities of transporting people into another reality. That’s why they’ve opened a VR studio, @Reality, on campus (on October 13th, 2017) with four different stations staffed by some pretty advanced equipment, including the Meta2, which is an Augmented Reality experience that allows uses to touch, grab, and pull photorealistic 3D holograms. The school’s goal with the studio is “to expose students and faculty to academic and research-based activities taking place across campus while also offering a space for play and individual exploration.”

University of Nevada, Reno’s @Reality VR Studio, photo from UNR website

Harry Thomas, Manager of the @One Technology Services (part of UNR’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center) has already provided a great direction for the technology use. He allowed Evan W. Gadda, UNR Musical Theater Major, a chance to ditch his wheelchair, forget about his disability, and travel to the Playa at Burning Man and ski down the slopes of Squaw Valley. The touching video, Walking With Reality, shows Gadda’s incredibly positive reaction to VR, “[cryng] I haven’t skied since I was 15 years old. You made me feel like I’m walking…[VR] will open new doors.”

His response was actually stronger than I expected it to be from him.
– Harry Thomas

Gadda’s experience was not unique – Danny Kurtzman (who suffers from muscle dystrophy) experienced surfing with a VR experience provided by Specular Theory. Ryan Pulliam, co-founder of Specular Theory, watched Kurtzman’s experience. “I’ll never forget looking at him. He was stoked,” Pulliam says. “He made us realize this goes beyond empathy — it’s a way to inspire people with disabilities and give them new experiences as if they are real. It’s this powerful, magical moment.”

Jeremy Bailenson, who runs the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, believes that through VR, we can reshape our map of the body we have in the brain. Essentially, this means that disabled people will be able to experience things, like skiing and surfing, in a realistic way.

Evan Gadda experiencing VR for the first time. Still from “Walking with Reality” 

Gadda was hoping that other disabled people could experience what he did. Before URN established the @Reality Studio, there was no communication between the applications of VR within the University. Now that there is a dedicated VR space, there will be an increase in shared ideas and hopefully new or wider applications of VR. The future looks bright for VR, and hopefully Gadda’s powerful experience will be something everyone can experience.

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