Virtual Reality Research to Benefit Those With Cognitive Impairments

An interdisciplinary team of Kent State University professors has come together to explore the different ways virtual reality (VR) technology can help those with developmental and cognitive impairments.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people with disabilities are among the most sedentary population in the U.S., and people with intellectual or developmental disorders are five times less likely to be physically active compared to their peers.

However, little research has been done to explore tools that could potentially encourage more physical activity among this population.

This team of researchers is introducing virtual reality technology as a potential solution. Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of an interactive, three-dimensional environment, which requires the use of headsets, hand-held controllers and other electronic equipment to allow a person to interact with the simulation.

Mary Ann Devine, Ph.D., a professor in the Recreation, Park, & Tourism Management program at Kent State, serves as the director for the Disability Studies and Community Inclusion minor/graduate certificate. Dr. Devine is joined in her research by Gokarna Sharma, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, and Jong-Hoon Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science. The faculty are accompanied by three graduate students.

The different perspectives on the team help the researchers to come at the project from numerous angles, Dr. Devine explained.

“We found that we are able to blend our expertise together to create a project that will improve the health opportunities for people with cognitive impairments,” she said.

“The idea is to represent that environment to individuals with cognitive impairments and have them identify variables or things within the environment that would help them be more physically active or that would get in the way,” she said.

The team received $15,000 from the Kent State Healthy Communities Research Initiative to aid their research.

Earlier research conducted by the team revealed that those with cognitive disabilities are able to use the virtual reality equipment comfortably. This technology could be used to help those with cognitive disabilities “frontload,” — or learning and preparing for a new environment before actually being there.

Dr. Devine had the idea to adapt the technology for those with disabilities.

“This is really just a start,” she said. “We have ideas about how this could help older adults or people with mobility impairments.”

The research looks at young adults with developmental and cognitive disabilities between the ages of 18 and 28 years old.

Dr. Kim said the team has created an interactive virtual reality tour of the Kent State University Recreation & Wellness Center. It is intended to replicate the real environment, so the change in imagery is fluid and realistic.

The team was granted permission to take photographs of the Recreation & Wellness Center after hours, which were then used to develop the virtual reality imagery.

A student could understand the setup of the center -- where items such as locker rooms and water fountains are located -- all before they step inside the building.

Having the information in advance can be helpful for those on the autism spectrum, who sometimes prefer not to interact with others, Dr. Devine explained. Individuals can get to know a new place and feel comfortable being there, so that when they are physically in the space they will not feel intimidated asking questions and they will be aware of areas that might present challenges. For example, users will be able to see if there is a lot of signage, which could be difficult to navigate for people who have lower reading capabilities.

The team has plans to create three different environments, including outdoors, commercial and neighborhood settings.

The goal is to help the Kent State community, but this project has global potential. The technology can be accessed on a cell phone, so there are very few limitations, Dr. Devine said.

The findings will be shared with policy makers, service providers, family members, architects, city planners and the public so that people may better understand how built environments impact human behavior.

To learn more about Kent State’s Healthy Communities Research Initiative visit

Photo Caption: Dr. Jong-Hoon Kim (second from left) and students (left to right) Hyunjae Jeong. Alfred Shaker, and Xiangxu Lin discuss their VR technology.

POSTED: Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - 10:37am
UPDATED: Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 2:31pm
Natalie Eusebio