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How Can Virtual Reality Help Veterans With Vision Loss Return to Society?

Almost 8 decades ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the helm of the nation as it endured the trials of World War II. He had signed an executive order that declared that no blind veteran from WWII would return home “without adequate training to meet the problems of necessity imposed upon them by their blindness.”

Today, there are millions of veterans around the world who have low vision that causes a loss of ability to perform daily activities and thousands who are legally blind. Veterans Assist has a global network of low-vision of rehabilitation programs helping many blind and low-vision veterans improve their daily lives.

The inability to see properly severely limits veterans ability to lead a normal life. But thanks to technological development, many visually impaired veterans may be able to regain their eyesight. At least, this is the conclusion of a recent clinical trial using a wearable VR device developed by GiveVision.

Sight loss is not exclusive to veterans, as it has become a major health pandemic globally. According to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people globally have a vision impairment or blindness.

One of the first VR solutions was a holographic sound system which had been designed to serve as an audiological orientation and mobility tool for veterans suffering from vision loss. This virtual sound system has been created in order to mitigate the limitations of existing sound systems and binaural recordings. Binaural recordings aimed to provide a three-dimensional effect through two recordings at different frequencies. However, this method was restrictive due to the inability of head tracking and transferring sound environments using processing software. Another issue was the use of standardised dummy heads as it failed to take into consideration the difference in people’s head and ear sizes.

GiveVision’s VR device has four improvements from the previous system:

  1. The new system will allow the person to freely adjust their head in order to capture sounds around them (head tracking).

  2. A spherical microphone array has been included to record sound environments. The sound environments are processed through real-time software which ensures that the direction of any sound will remain the same even if the person moves his or her head.

  3. This new system is designed according to the recipient’s head and ear size in order to accurately capture the intended recorded sounds.

  4. The virtual sound system applies software algorithms to distinguish specific sounds in order to customise and create the intended virtual sound field for its clients.

A previous study on human response to traffic using a virtual reality sound system is what lead us here. Each participant in the study received a virtual reality headset and a sound system tailored to their audio frequency levels. The environment mimicked common road intersections and assessed each participant’s ability to detect different sounds. The study aimed to identify the level of sound required for blind people to act responsibly in certain situations. Through adapting to various sounds in virtual reality environments, the study strived to train visually impaired veterans to adapt to real-world environments.

There were only four participants in the study and the final results were not shared.

Another study in 2017 was conducted to compare the effectiveness of training visually impaired individuals in virtual and real environments. Twelve participants were trained to use pedestrian signals and determine the safest time to cross the road. Four participants trained on real traffic intersections and eight on virtual environments. The results demonstrated that before training, more than half of the participants were unsafe in their road judgements. However, after training, ninety percent of the participants improved in their road awareness and judgement while crossing the road. These results demonstrate that training in virtual environments is as effective as real-time environments.

Acoustic virtual reality provides various advantages including the detection of sound location and the early identification of potential risks. It also allows the orientation and mobility specialist to design a training curriculum specific to each person through the effective manipulation of sounds. A study was conducted with thirty participants where 10 were not trained, 10 were placed in virtual training and the other 10 were trained in real environments. The results demonstrated that virtual training reduced the participant’s level of stress and anxiety in certain situations. Virtual training improved their sense of direction and technical awareness in real-life situations.

Video Stories & Research

Here are videos on virtual reality for vision loss. Some of these dates back a few years and others are more recent, offering an educator and researchers perspectives as well as first-hand experiences.

How to use Samsung Gear VR for Visually Impaired Users

Scientists in San Diego Using VR To Help The Visually Impaired

We can confidently declare that Virtual Reality has great potential in training road safety skills to people with vision loss, building their confidence in a way that was never previously thought possible.

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