Virtual Reality to improve motor function

The Artifact Itself 

What is virtual reality? According to Merriam- Webster, virtual reality is “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.”


Virtual reality has recently been taking the tech world by storm, and is now trickling into the lives of everyday people. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the creation of Cyberspace made computers and the internet sensory and dimensional. Cyberspace incorporates far more than what we know as virtual reality today, but steps are being taken to achieve something such as this.  Virtual reality is everywhere, from video games to pop culture to medicine. In particular, virtual reality has been used for improving motor function in patients with physical disabilities. The utilization of this technology for assistance in motor function is actually not a new phenomenon. As early as 1995, virtual reality was being investigated as a means of rehabilitation for those with physical disabilities and as a means of diagnosis for the Physician to use (Kuhlen, abstract). Virtual reality is a technology that can be spread far and wide, but I will be investigating physical disabilities specifically in order to assert that virtual reality is the most successful technology for improving motor function.

When my Aunt was born in the 1960’s with Down Syndrome, many people believed her condition led to an absence of a high quality of life. Instead of physical and cognitive therapy, many babies born with Down Syndrome were placed into homes. Today, the 30 year old woman with Down Syndrome at my church routinely goes to various therapies and has even tried virtual reality therapy as a way to improve her motor function. Down Syndrome occurs in approximately 1 in 800 births and has a number of characteristics, a few being “delays in motor milestone attainment, sensorimotor performance deficit, and perceptual dysfunctions” along with a lower motor proficiency and problems controlling their limbs (Wuang, 312).

The Nintendo Wii is a form of virtual reality that uses a remote that can sense changes in speed and direction. In a study done by Wuang et al., a group of 105 children received either standard occupational therapy (SOT) or a program utilizing the Wii (Wuang et al. 315-316). Although there has been very little research done on the Wii as a form of physical or occupational therapy, this study found that the Wii therapy allowed for the greatest improvement in gross motor function (Wuang et al. 319).

Children with Down Syndrome playing on the Wii

While traditional methods are examined in the study and have a great deal of research on them, the true test against virtual reality is other technological advances, such as movable and wearable prosthetics. A man with cerebral palsy invented a robotic arm, known as The Handy 1. This prosthetic arm allows for patients with severe motor function problems to perform basic tasks on their own (Topping 142). However, there is a clear distinction which needs to be made between the goals of virtual reality and the goals of moveable and wearable prosthetics. Prosthetics have limited effect on the improvement of motor function when they are not present and are intended to be used daily while virtual reality is used as a therapy so that gradually motor function will improve and the patient can do more without assistance, either human or in the form of technology.

A primary problem with current therapies for improving motor function in patients with physical disabilities is the lack of diversity. Patients often have to repeat the same task numerous times, which can become monotonous and boring. A strength of virtual reality is the infinite settings and activities a participant could be a part of. For children and people with short attention spans, in particular people with cognitive disabilities as well as physical disabilities such as Down Syndrome, virtual reality offers more stimulation and is more successful at keeping the mind occupied (Wuang et al. 313).

Cultural Representation

Virtual reality is becoming so popular overall that there is even a Wikipedia page called “Virtual Reality in Fiction.” As a technology, it is seen everywhere from Neuromancer to Dr. Who to Avatar. It is often seen as a tool to allow characters to be transported into other worlds, with a full sensory experience. However, virtual reality as a technology for assisting in motor function is a little more scarce. In the video game, Sword Art Online II, a virtual character is brought into the real world through cameras in an attempt to allow a patient who is bedridden to attend school. While this does not show virtual reality as a way to assist motor function, it does demonstrate awareness that virtual reality can be used in order to assist people with disabilities. This 2014 video game shows improvements made for the perception of virtual reality for people with disabilities after a more negative influence was made by an earlier film.

In 1992, the film Lawnmower Man was released. This movie follows a research scientist who utilizes virtual reality in order to help his gardener who is both mentally and physically handicapped. The inclusion of virtual reality for improving cognitive function highlights some of the dangers and fears of virtual reality at that time. The movie serves as a warning but includes many fictional elements such as the ability to read minds, move objects, and super human strength. This film serves as primarily negatives for the use of virtual reality, but its creation does suggest some positives. By being made, it is shown that virtual reality for disabilities was an existing concept and was known to have potential benefits as early as 1992. However, the incorporation of virtual reality for enhanced cognitive function and various drugs for the brain being used in conjunction suggest a fear of technology at this time that extended to virtual reality.

This trailer demonstrates games were being played to improve functions of the disabled patient, very similar to how the Wii provides a multitude of exciting and new experiences as a form of alternative therapy for disabilities. The film shows the virtual reality getting out of hand and an addiction to it but also utilizes more science fiction than science.

Over the evolution of virtual reality, the dissonance between expectation and what is feasible has created various hurdles. One author writes for the Disability and Rehabilitation journal claiming that movies such as The Lawnmower Man created early warped perceptions of what virtual reality was. In fact, the movie did so much negatively that many were convinced virtual reality was a “fad”and money was given much more scarcely to help with research being conducted. The movie created an expectation of what virtual reality was, an expectation that could never be attained with our present understandings of technology (Rizzo 567).

Although this film depicted virtual reality being used to assist those with disabilities, the sci-fi/horror genre of the film created false perceptions of what virtual reality actual was and what the dangers of virtual reality would become. However, ask Elon Musk and he’ll tell you the odds of us living in a computer simulation are actually far greater than the odds of us not. Virtual reality is something we are coming to have a better understanding of as time passes and information increases, but it is still incredibly unknown. Whether we are living in virtual reality and are unaware of it for the time being or if we have some dangerous potential applications for virtual reality, it’s present day usage as a tool to help the disabled is a significant positive of its technology.

Image from “The Lawnmower Man”


The Sensorama: An Early Form of Virtual Reality

The concept of virtual reality in the terms we understand it today stems back all the way to the 1930s. Stanley Weinbaum invented an idea for a gaming system in which goggles were worn and the viewer would watch a holographic recording, complete with sensory stimuli such as sight and smell. Then, the 1960s brought about virtual reality goggles actually being created. They were invented for the purpose of the military, as so many new technologies are, and allowed for training exercises to be run in a safe environment that would still challenge a soldier’s skill. In particular, it was used for pilots running simulations. This technology for the military has continued to be developed and to be utilized into present day. In the 1990s, virtual reality went back to its original concept and became integrated into gaming. Nintendo and Sega created home virtual reality gaming systems. In 2014, Oculus VR demonstrated that many developers were looking to virtual reality as the future. It demonstrated a transition of virtual reality from an elite and expensive tool to something that could be used by the ordinary person in ordinary uses, for example, as a therapy. (Brown, “A Brief History of Virtual Reality.”).

Arguably, virtual reality can stem back further than the 1930s if we look to the more artistic side. Panoramic paintings have been seen as virtual reality because they work to create a perception of being surrounded by another world. In 1838, Charles Wheaton invented the Stereoscope, which was used for virtual tourism and incorporated viewing multiple 2D images at once for an overall experience of 3D. The Sensorama, pictured above, was a form of virtual reality that was created to enhance the cinematic experience. As is suggested by the name, the Sensorama had different featured to stimulate various senses that would not be normally stimulated in film (“History Of Virtual Reality”).  All of this background helps to create an explanation of how virtual reality is now being used today, in particular for improving motor function in patients with disabilities. It is important to note virtual reality did not come from a vacuum. It stemmed from a desire to increase human intelligence and augment aspects of the human experience. Virtual reality for improving motor function does just that. It allows a user to develop their body in an engaging and effective way (Lauria 45).

It began purely as a visual, utilizing art to create a more intense visual experience. From there, ideas of incorporating more than sight led to abstract concepts of what virtual reality could be, a complete sensory experience out of body. The rise of film led to the desire for more to be incorporated and military strategy saw great benefits in terms of safety and predicting the response of soldiers to certain scenarios. With all of this put together, the virtual reality that is being developed today has been fostered by a broad past. For motor function in particular, the origins come from the military and video game pursuits. The development by the military fostered communication of a physical body with one inside the virtual world. Video games helped provide the diverse scenarios and interesting new challenges, a key feature of virtual reality when being judged against more traditional therapies.

Virtual reality today continues to be perpetuated by the desire for a new world. The success of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars show a desire for an alternative universe in which one can escape. This stems from literature far before the tech age and reveals a pattern of desire. This long history suggests that virtual reality has been a dream long before it was even attainable (Saler 4). Now that it is tangible, its uses will continue to expand and the tech behind it will continue to improve. Let us hope its medical benefits continue to be explored to improve the quality of life for many a patient.

Works Cited

“Amazon.Com: The Lawnmower Man: Pierce Brosnan, Jeff Fahey, Jenny Wright, Austin O’Brien.” Accessed December 12, 2017.

Behind The Science Fiction. The Lawnmower Man (Trailer). Accessed December 12, 2017.

Brown. “A Brief History of Virtual Reality.” Wondershare. Accessed December 12, 2017.

“Can Video Games Be Beneficial For Those With Down Sydrome?” Therapy Insider. 2015. Web. 10 December 2017.

Gibson, William, 1948-. Neuromancer. New York :Ace Science Fiction Books, 1984. Print.

“History Of Virtual Reality.” Virtual Reality Society (blog). Accessed December 13, 2017.

Kuhlen, T., and C. Dohle. “Virtual reality for physically disabled people.” Computers in Biology and Medicine 25.2 (1995): 205-211.

Lauria, Rita. “In love with our technology: Virtual reality: A brief intellectual history of the idea of virtuality and the emergence of a media environment.” Convergence 7.4 (2001): 30-51.

“Reality GIF.” GIPHY. 2017. Web. 9 December 2017.

Rizzo, Albert’Skip. “Virtual reality and disability: emergence and challenge.” Disability and rehabilitation 24.11-12 (2002): 567.

Saler, Michael. As if: Modern enchantment and the literary prehistory of virtual reality. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Seibold, Witney. “A Defense of 1992 Virtual-Reality Thriller THE LAWNMOWER MAN.” The 13th Floor, June 28, 2016.

Topping, Mike. “Handy 1, a robotic aid to independence for severely disabled people.” 7th Int’l Conf. on Rehabilitation Robotics. 2001.

“virtual reality.” Merriam-Webster, 2017. Web. 9 December 2017.

“We Are Living in a Computer Simulation, Elon Musk Says.” The Independent, June 2, 2016.

Wuang, Yee-Pay, et al. “Effectiveness of virtual reality using Wii gaming technology in children with Down syndrome.” Research in developmental disabilities 32.1 (2011): 312-321.