Live from Denver Pop Culture Con: Virtual Ability Helps People in the Real World using Gaming Technology
It’s not just about comics at Denver Pop Culture Con. Denver’s fandom is unique in supporting the efforts of education, through our associated nonprofit, Pop Culture Classroom, as well our new and unique gaming and development area, the E.D.G.E.
So, what is the E.D.G.E.? It’s our gaming and development experience expanded and redefined to include a wider variety of entertainment, gaming, creation and educational offerings in an experiential setting. It goes like this:
E: Entertainment, including videos, podcasts, streaming entertainment and more.
D: Development and Design, for all makers, DIY-ers, crafters, coders, engineers and developers.
G: Gamers, from the casual to the hardcore and from PC enthusiasts to console junkies.
E: Education, for like-minded people who think pop culture, gaming and other media are great platforms for teaching young people about the world.
Today, I visited the E.D.G.E. and the pleasure of meeting Alice Krueger, the President and founder of Virtual Ability, a nonprofit organization that builds communities of support for people with disabilities within virtual worlds. Within virtual worlds like Second Life, Virtual Ability enables professionals, researchers, caregivers and wounded warriors to explore the world once more. These fascinating virtual environments allow community members to go dancing, take walks in the virtual woods, climb mountains and go skydiving. It’s a pretty amazing application of technology.
“Virtual Ability is a cross-disability peer support community in Second Life,” explained Kroeger, who roams Second Life as her virtual avatar, GentleHeron. “We provide education and entertainment to our community members and do outreach to the general population in Second Life.“ Most people don’t realize that in virtual environments, one out of every five persons has some kind of disability and that’s a higher percentage than in the general population outside the virtual world.”
The nonprofit organization partners with institutions around the country including schools of medicine, major universities, the American Cancer Society, the U.S. Army and Department of Defense and the Amputee Coalition of America to conduct leading-edge research in and about virtual world environments like Second Life, InWorldz and OpenSim.
“We have eight islands in Second Life,” explained Alex Alger, a former intern and new addition to Virtual Ability, Inc. “Our original island is Virtual Ability Island, which has an orientation path that has been used by 40,000 people just in the past few years. We also have Employee Able, which we built in partnership with the University of Hawaii for the purpose of pre-employment training for independent living centers. We have actually provided a variety of employment opportunities for people who are otherwise not allowed to work.”
The technology has dramatic real-world applications. Virtual Ability Inc. recently held a focus group for a large group of nursing students who were partnered in a virtual world with parents of autistic children. By using the virtual world to simulate a medical setting, these parents were better able to explain the unique challenges of treating autistic children in a clinic setting and make the nurses better prepared to offer treatment and compassion to autistic children when they have to have complicated procedures like an MRI or a blood test.
“There were technologies we could access that were originally developed for very different purposes that we were able to adapt to provide accessibility for our community members,” explained Alger. “It allows us to control the environment. In one case, we recreated the block where one of our community members has to look both ways before they cross the road to catch the bus. Before we used this simulation, they weren’t allowed to leave the house on their own. After crossing the street a couple of hundred times in a virtual reality and everyone feels comfortable, now that person is allowed to travel on their own, which opens up the real world as well.”
If this all sounds wildly ambitious, it is, but the founder of Virtual Ability doesn’t see it that way.
“Actually, it wasn’t ambition; it was self-interest,” says Kroeger of her inspiration for creating Virtual Ability, Inc. “I am disabled and as I became more and more disabled, I became more and more isolated. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t be around friends or family, and I was stuck in one room. I had no other outlet so I thought perhaps that a virtual world could help me. It became a window and then a door and then it opened that door for a lot of other people.”
Visit www.virtualability.org for more great information and resources from Virtual Ability, Inc. and we encourage everyone to come to the 700 halls this weekend to visit more great gaming companies, educational organizations, developers, creators, makers, hackers and more at the DPCC E.D.G.E.