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Uncovering the Practical Applications of Virtual Art
by Emily Pohl-Weary
Virtual reality technolgies are being used in a host of new ways by disabled persons, from rehabilitation to the creation of multimedia animations. Emily Pohl-Weary interviewed University of Toronto accessibility expert Jutta Treviranus about the practical applications of VNS and virtual reality
Jutta's Creativity Principle
Name three established uses for virtual reality. Inevitably, military strategizing, virtual sex and cheesy video games come to mind. So, what kind of person would stumble upon an artist's interactive virtual sound installation and instantly recognize its potential to inspire and empower a camp-full of developmentally disabled kids? Someone like Jutta Treviranus, an occupational therapist and mother of two who at the time was working with special needs children at Toronto's Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre.
Treviranus' experience raising her own children taught her time and again that it's much easier to motivate them if they're rewarded for their efforts. In 1993, she was searching for ways to apply this principle -- that creativity and fun are an integral part of inspiration and learning -- to her work with disabled kids. When she stumbled upon Toronto artist David Rokeby's Very Nervous System (VNS), she recognized an intriguing possibility. Treviranus noticed that the system was designed to interpret changes in body movement, and that it could also be adapted to filter out physical "noise" like shaking or spasms. She realized that VNS's algorithms could be calibrated so that kids with limited motor skills could create music, and that severely disabled people might even be able to use VNS to communicate.
A background in micro-computers, and a fascination with the emerging potential of virtual reality projects, had already led Treviranus to believe that new technological advances in areas like virtual computer interfaces, multimedia applications, and video cameras could be adapted to create powerful alternatives for people who cannot manipulate standard computer input devices like keyboards and mice. Her dream was to gather together several examples of accessible technology and create an institution that provided disabled kids with the tools to be creative in an environment devoted to learning and empowerment. She believed that this would give people with severe disabilities new opportunities to communicate, express themselves, create art, and even learn to walk and move again. Her goal was to counteract what she calls the "learned helplessness" ingrained in their psyches.
She knuckled down and applied for dozens of grants, securing the funding and hardware necessary to start an integrated multimedia summer camp in which kids with severe disabilities -- such as "locked-in syndrome", a rare neurological disorder characterized by complete paralysis of all voluntary muscles except those that control eye movement -- would be able to participate on an equal basis with their siblings and friends. During the camp's first season in 1994, an overwhelming number of children registered. The counselors ran seven sessions with forty spots in each. Over more recent years, the camp has been scaled down to four two-week summer sessions with fewer kids per session, yet it continues to be a huge success.
Very Adaptive Technology
On the day we first met at the University of Toronto's Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC), where Treviranus is currently Interim Director, the therapist was understandably a little flustered. She'd just returned from traveling in Europe only to receive a devastating blow: a much-loved and essential camp counselor had been killed by a transit bus. Treviranus wasn't sure whether the camp would be able to run at all that summer, and knew that canceling it would mean disappointing a lot of eager kids. Yet she was encouragingly upbeat during our chat. We settled into her office to spend two hours discussing Very Nervous System, the amazing kids Treviranus works with, and just how helpful David Rokeby has been in helping to modify the technology he created.
VNS was one of the first virtual reality systems that the camp adopted. When Treviranus approached Rokeby, she found him willing, even eager, to help modify the system for the children's use. He had already worked in 1988 to create a similar system with "Supercussion", a group of Vancouver musicians with quadriplegia, and was thrilled that a technology spun from his art practice might again be put to beneficial use. At the time, the system was basically a dumbed-down camera (used as a motion sensor) attached to a clunky old Apple II computer. Yet it created a space in which simple body movements could "play" sounds or other computerized responses, making it possible for even a severely disabled person unable to use a more conventional musical instrument to create sophisticated music, from synthesized pop to the sounds of a full classical orchestra.
Nine years into the future, the 2002 multimedia camp uses an updated high-tech version of VNS made up of a network of video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and a sound system. The kids who attend the SummerWeb Multimedia Camp have varying levels of computer skill when they arrive -- some of them have never had the opportunity to use computers at all -- but during their session, they learn about everything from e-mail and Web searching to how to create various styles of digital animation. The campers' final project is to create funny and colourful animated skits using a host of VR technologies, including Vivid's Mandala system, which has the ability to translate a person's body into a digital silhouette that can interact with icons on a computer's screen. Mandala can even convert body movements directly into computerized paint-brush strokes, and is used by the kids to create the animated images, while VNS is used to compose the skits' soundtracks.
Algorhithms of Communication
VNS has also been used in many other ways for practical rehabilitation over the past eight years. For example, Treviranus was the one to recognize that by adjusting the system's image processor so that body movements are interpreted like sign language, "the algorithms of VNS could be adapted so that it could be used as an augmentative communication system." In other words, even persons disabled by near-total paralysis can use the system to speak or write. As Treviranus explains, "Eleven severely disabled people use the system to communicate on an ongoing basis, by setting the algorithms so that a specific movement corresponds to a letter of the alphabet or a system of codes, much like Morse code." One woman who uses the system in this way can only control the movement of her eyelids, but can still type fifteen words per minute. Treviranus helped create the binary code selection method that allows her to communicate.
After helping to figure out some of VNS's more pragmatic uses, Treviranus didn't rest on her laurels (this woman has a passion for virtual technology). Over the past decade she has worked out of the University of Toronto's Resource Centre for Academic Technology and, in 1994, was instrumental in starting up the ATRC, an associated body providing education, services, research and development in the field of accessible technology. She also co-invented the Visual Dynamic Keyboard (another device for people who are unable to use traditional keyboard and mouse), and co-wrote an insulin injection guide for disabled diabetics. Treviranus even helped to develop the PEBBLES robot (short for "Providing Education by Bringing Learning Environments to Students"), a videoconferencing technology designed to link terminally-ill children with the classrooms they cannot attend. PEBBLES permits them to stay in touch with classmates, participate in lessons from home, and even put up a "virtual hand" when they want to ask the teacher a question. Many of the virtual technologies that Treviranus has supported and created have come into regular use at the multimedia camp. It just goes to show what a world of difference one person can make.
Emily Pohl-Weary recently completed the autobiography of her science fiction-writing grandmother, Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. She is currently working on a novel about a haunted slacker girl, and otherwise spends her time scheming up alternative media like Kiss Machine, Broken Penciland Rabble.ca.