|06-01-2003, 07:08 PM||#1|
Wheelchair Users Take Flight By Karlin Lillington
Wheelchair Users Take Flight By Karlin Lillington
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,59020,00.html
02:00 AM May. 31, 2003 PT
DUBLIN, Ireland -- Projected onto a large screen, a plump blue butterfly darts and veers. For the delighted young girl in a wheelchair who controls the virtual butterfly's dips and twirls, the animated avatar offers a sense of acrobatic freedom.
Her moves with the butterfly are the first tentative dance steps by a group of children with disabilities. Guided by modified joysticks and microphones that will respond to gentle puffs of breath rather than voice commands, their butterflies will be part of a networked dance performance at a major European conference on disabilities and assistive technologies, to be held in Dublin later this year.
A mixture of able-bodied dancers and the avatars controlled by children in wheelchairs, the dance is the heart of a project called Feileacan (the Irish Gaelic word for "butterfly") that combines complex human-machine interfaces and virtual-reality computer graphics tools.
"Our mantra is that we want to expand human potential through innovation, and we really believe that every person deserves to benefit from technology," said Gary McDarby, researcher with Media Lab Europe, a Dublin-based spinoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.
Media Lab Europe is partnering with New York University, London media and idea incubator Smartlab Centre, New York's Montefiore Medical Center and Dublin's Central Remedial Clinic in a series of unusual projects. The group of leading-edge technologists and health-care professionals hopes to find more dynamic and creative ways for people with disabilities to learn and communicate.
"Feileacan gives people with disabilities the possibility to interact and perform. It's technology that enables people to do things they couldn't do otherwise," said McDarby.
According to Kate Brehm, researcher with NYU's Center for Advanced Technology, this "virtual puppetry" lets children use the same techniques they would use to maneuver their wheelchairs.
"The great thing is that you can personalize the interface for each child," said Joy Barrett, projects manager at Smartlab Centre. "Depending on the abilities of the child, you could set up joysticks, a breathing device or even motion-tracking devices."
Another hugely popular virtual interactive world, called Still Life, uses mind-calming virtual-reality energy orbs to help improve coordination and concentration. A child can sit or stand before a computer screen holding a sensor-filled "orb" (or large ball) in each hand, one orange, one yellow. On the screen are two swirling energy fields, one orange and one yellow. The computer senses the location of the balls in the child's hands, and tracks their movement across the screen.
The child tries to remain still while slowly moving the ball in each arm, until the real ball tracks to its matching swirling energy force on screen. When that happens, there's a fireworks-like explosion of color, and slowly, a large puzzle piece appears on the screen.
Gradually, a jigsaw of a beautiful, otherworldly landscape begins to fill the screen. As long as the child holds still and only moves the balls, the landscape is visible. Any sudden move, and it fades away. Two people can play as well, each holding one of the balls and matching their movements.
The game encourages coordination and was inspired by the gentle moves of tai chi, with its ancient techniques for expanding concentration while learning how to remain calm and in control.
"There's a lot of sophisticated technology behind what looks like a very simple interface. This is really looking at computer vision in a new way," said McDarby. The game requires a complex tracking mechanism, the ability to monitor feedback from multiple sensors, and intelligence to filter out background colors that could be read incorrectly as the two orbs.
Several other projects are in the works. Researchers are in the process of establishing a webcam network between several different Irish facilities for people with disabilities. So far, a basic network enables children in two Dublin locations to talk to and see others in Limerick and in Ennis, County Clare.
Two girls in wheelchairs, Katie and Amy, demonstrated the system at the Central Remedial Clinic by holding a cheerful conversation with other kids with disabilities in Clondalkin, a Dublin suburb, and in Clare. After a day of practicing with Feileacan and Still Life, the favorite query among the youths was, "Are you tired?!" accompanied by lots of laughter.
"This is quite an innovative and flexible set of learning projects," said Ger Craddock, manager of technical services at Dublin's Central Remedial Clinic. The clinic children have workshops to use the technologies twice a week, he said, and with the webcam, are meeting children they otherwise would rarely, if ever, see.
"This is a real means for the kids to further their own goals around learning and eventually, employment," he said.
The seventh European Conference for the Advancement of Assistive Technology takes place from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3 in Dublin. The conference theme is Shaping the Future.