For years accessibility has been an afterthought when it comes to the design and distribution of technology because those with disabilities are not often thought of as the “target market”. An estimated 12.6% of the US population, roughly 40 million Americans, are classified as disabled with 15% of the global population having some form of disability. Using immersive technologies we can cultivate solutions to suit individual needs. By keeping accessibility in our sights during the early stage of the development process in the ideation stage, we will ensure all users can participate in life-altering Extended Reality (XR) experiences.
XR including Augmented (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), have begun to revolutionize the healthcare industry. These mediums can overcome various physical limitations and provide risk- free experiences (i.e. travel and adventure) while improving medical treatment and creating a more effective and engaging rehab and recovery process. Those with disabilities should not have to simply make do with what they are given, but rather be included in the development of society.
For the Immersive Digital World, the solution is simple: develop tools that will enhance the user experience of those with disabilities from the beginning. We need to be mindful of how to make our products and services available to those with special needs right now rather than wait for future iterations of XR. If we thoughtfully leverage immersive tech for things like making the patient experience better by adapting the environment and tools to fit the user, we will tap into unlocking the true healing potential of XR.
It’s undeniable that VR is taking a larger role in healthcare by enabling people to live better with pain, mental illness, and other disabilities. Whether it is improving motor skills and aiding muscle recovery during Stroke rehabilitation, or pain and stress management - VR can now improve the patient experience in a myriad of ways. XR is also an alternative to opioids for pain relief and is beginning to improve our ability to provide treatment much more successfully.
My company NeuroStorm applies concepts from the frontiers of scientific research to develop new technologies and real-world applications and experiences in XR. We are focused on creating an inclusive Digital World where people with hand tremors and similar disabilities have the agency to create, connect with their community, and be themselves. Our founding team is composed of neuroscientists with experience in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's disease. Thus, we are familiar with symptoms of the disease, treatment alternatives, responsibly handling patient data, and understanding their needs.
We work closely with a group of Parkinson's patients at New York University and the non-profit Parkinson’s advocacy organization stoPD.org. In particular, we’ve had engaging discussions about how the symptoms of Parkinson’s affect life beyond checklist diagnostics common in the medical literature and how technology could be of help. Patients feel isolated as they become more debilitated and are looking for the feeling of freedom again, therefore, they are very much interested in immersive technologies such as VR that enable them to reengage in activities they no longer can do in the real world.
With this in mind, we created algorithms that stabilize patient’s digitized hands so that when they are in VR, they no longer have hand tremors - they no longer have Parkinson’s. We’ve then created a series of apps that make use of these algorithms to restore lifestyle activities patients were able to do before they were diagnosed with Parkinson’s. These apps have resonated deeply with patients.
Imagine a patient named Sue. Painting was a major part of Sue’s life, both professionally and for leisure. In fact, she was compelled to visit her doctor after noticing slight tremors as she created new art pieces. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and watched with little recourse as these tremors grew stronger and stronger, eventually forcing her to stop painting, an end to the activity that brought her the most joy in life. Our painting app, Finger Paint offered Sue the opportunity to paint again. When Sue first put on a VR headset she was at a loss for words as her digital hands no longer were shaking involuntarily (our algorithms were working in the background), and she had access to paintbrushes she was used to as well as new paintbrushes she could have not imagined. With steady hands and these paintbrushes, Sue for the first time in years was able to paint on canvas again.
There are 10 million Parkinson’s disease patients globally. However, they represent only the tip of the iceberg with one in four adults over the age of 65 worldwide have a disorder that causes involuntary hand movements. Essential Tremor (ET) is the most prevalent of these, affecting up to 20% of adults over 65. Our apps built on an algorithmic platform to stabilize tremors can restore important lifestyle activities for many of these patients, allowing them to once again perform just as they did before they were diagnosed.
New innovations need to be compatible with current assistive technologies. The evolution of the healthcare and wellness industries have served to improve the quality of life for patients, caretakers and family members alike. Immersive technologies can further cultivate experiences to suit individual needs and enhance our ability to explore and connect in new meaningful ways. VR can now assist the deaf to hear, help the blind to see, and the tremor-afflicted to once again enjoy passions and hobbies such as writing, painting, and making music - things they never thought they would perform again. We need more empowering solutions like these. So XR leaders must have a “no one left behind’ approach as the architects of this ecosystem and accept the mission of continuing to build with impact and with responsibility.