I’ll Cross that Virtual Bridge When I Come to It: Orientation and Mobility Training in Virtual Environments

Author: Nicholas J. Hoekstra; info@ciddl.org

For students who are blind or visually impaired, orientation and mobility (O&M) skills are fundamental for independence. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) defines O&M as a related service that provides students with the skills necessary for safe movement in their school, home, and community. The act goes on to describe important skills that make up O&M, including the use of a cane or guide dog as well as the ability to use nonvisual cues from the environment (such as sound, temperature, or vibrations) to orient oneself and maintain a line of travel.

While the importance of testing O&M skills in real environments cannot be overlooked, there are several unpredictable conditions that can make doing so challenging. Factors such as bad weather, the behavior of other pedestrians, and walking into an ongoing armed robbery (as happened in the case of this blog’s author), can delay or otherwise impact the ability of an O&M instructor to impart training. There are also the more obvious risks associated with practicing newly learned skills, such as street crossing, in a live setting with moving traffic.

One technology that has shown potential for creating safe spaces for teaching/practicing O&M skills is virtual reality (VR). According to Thevin and colleagues (2020), VR systems create immersive, interactive environments that provide students the opportunity for trial and error . Besides visual feedback, VR systems can provide both haptic and auditory information for the benefit of individuals who are blind or low vision.

Virtual Practice Makes Perfect

Researchers have tested different VR systems for training various O&M skills and found overall positive results.

  • Safe crossings: In a study conducted by Bowman and Liu (2017), individuals with low vision were provided training on how to safely cross streets at an intersection. Individuals were randomly placed into one of two groups that would receive training on real streets or in a virtual environment. The authors found individuals who received training in the virtual environment were equally accurate in making safe crossing decisions at real intersections as were their counterparts who did all of their training in reality. This study helped to establish evidence for the transferability of skills from VR to real life settings.
  • Exploring familiar and unfamiliar spaces: BlindAid is another VR system that provides users with 3D audio that allows them to hear the direction and distance of sounds in the virtual environment, and haptic feedback by way of a stylus that users can hold as though it were a white cane. In a 2015 study conducted at the Carroll Center for the Blind, blind and visually impaired individuals were provided O&M training with the addition of time spent using the BlindAid VR to practice fundamental O&M skills. Researchers found users were able to take the skills they had practiced in the VR and explore, construct cognitive maps, and apply spatial information in a real, unfamiliar space.
  • Analyzing the environment: Finally, the X-Road virtual goggles for O&M is a portable, low-cost VR system that runs on standard smartphones with headphones and requires no specialized materials. When testing X-Road with students and O&M instructors, researchers found students were able to carefully analyze situations – such as crossing the street against the light – without the risk of accident or injury. O&M instructors particularly liked the potential of X-Road for modeling specific scenarios for O&M practice.

Tell us about your Virtual Reality

VR is finding growing application for skill training in a variety of settings. In the case of O&M, VR can provide individuals who are blind or visually impaired the chance to test out new skills in safe, controlled environments. Do you have experience with using VR for teaching or learning? Tell us about it at the CIDDL Community page.