Winter 2002-2003


 

 

Prof. Tamar Weiss Virtually Helps People Cross the Street, and Get on with Their Lives

 

Tamar Weiss is helping people of all ages cross the street.

    The Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy, together with colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Beit Lowenstein Rehabilitation Center in Raanana, and the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, does this through the use of virtual reality for people who have suffered damage to their cognitive or motor abilities, like a child suffering from cerebral palsy or an adult in the aftermath of a stroke.  Virtual reality simulates these abilities. 

    Take crossing the street.  A person who has suffered a stroke, for instance, may avoid the use of his or her left side, she explained.  Not looking in both directions for oncoming cars, even at a cross walk, can be dangerous.  Yuval Naveh, a master's student co-supervised by Weiss and Prof. Noomi Katz, developed a special program that sends directions to a figure on a computer-screen monitor about where to look and when to cross the street.  The computer is programmed to provide increasing levels of distractions that a person would face in real life when planning to cross a street.  The whole process, she made it clear, was based on rehabilitation theories.

    The next step will be to adapt what the keyboard activates and program it into a virtual-reality video projected scenario that gives the patient a real feeling of being in the street.  It is no longer a computer-screen figure that will be attempting to walk across the road, but the patient him/herself.  A turn of the head will produce a simulation of what is happening in that direction.   “The patient sees himself, so there may be a greater likelihood of his becoming immersed in the environment,” she commented.

    The machine, she continued, gives the patient a safe environment in which to practice crossing a street.  Weiss, who has established the Laboratory for Innovations in Rehabilitation Technology at the University, compared the activity to pilot simulation training.  “The same thing that is good for a pilot,” she said, “is good for the patient.”

She wants to build other simulated environments to enable people with severe disabilities to achieve greater independence. “The virtual activity is functionally relevant for people with disabilities,” she told Focus.  She was paraphrasing Prof. Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California, a pioneer in applying virtual reality to the field of rehabilitation. Rizzo was the keynote speaker at a three-day conference and workshop that Weiss organized in November on “Virtual Reality and Rehabilitation: Algorithms, Avatars, and Applications.”  The event was supported by the University’s Caesarea Rothschild Foundation Institute for Interdisciplinary Applications of Computer Science.

“Virtual reality is no longer science fiction,” Rizzo announced to an audience of occupational therapists, computer experts, and students of the two fields.  The technology may be driven by the computer-game industry, he said somewhat surprisingly, but it can be used in a range of clinical applications, from fear of flying to attention disorders to cases of schizophrenia, to handling a motorized wheelchair, “even to kitchen safety and street crossing.”   Because virtual reality can replicate the demands and tasks in the real world, he went on, it offers a vast improvement in diagnosis over pencil-and-paper tests.  

    He himself is presently using virtual reality to “release skills,” as he put it, in children suffering from attention deficit syndrome.   According to Rizzo, “the child gets clues on how to modify the real world to be more a more effective learner.  Virtual reality gives the illusion of being there, in the school classroom, in the house.” 

    Both in his talk and later, in demonstrations of several virtual reality programs for rehabilitation, the American psychologist stressed the word illusion.  Virtual reality could provide real-time performance feedback (“say, help in dressing oneself”), “errorless learning” when a person cannot learn from trial and error, distractions from a painful experience, and a “complete, naturalistic performance record.”  But it was an illusion, and the skills learned had in the end to be transferred to the real world. 

    For that reason, too, Rizzo warned, the therapist is still needed.  “There is a need to maintain therapist intervention [when a person was ready to transfer skills to the real world], even if there is independent practice and self-guided exploration.”

 

 

Prof. Albert Rizzo of the University of Southern California fits a virtual helmet on

a volunteer in a demonstration of how virtual reality can help in rehabilitation.

 

 

With her sense of seeing taken away by the blindfold, this volunteer works a

joystick that operates a special program to aid the blind in performing certain tasks.

 

Back to Table of Contents