Inspired by Star Trek's holodeck, Case Western Reserve University Assistant Professor Stacy Williams has dreamed—for more than a decade—of building a virtual reality theater to help people with speech and language deficits.
"When I saw the TV series, I just knew we needed something like this, with its real-life situations, for speech-language therapy," said Williams.
But the Star Trek technology that transforms a person's thoughts into holograms that are then projected onto the walls of a room in a spaceship—simulating real-life people, places and experiences—was difficult to produce in reality.
Williams proposed her idea to nearly a dozen technology companies that design virtual reality military and police training simulations and was refused. The costs were prohibitive, and attempts at converting current hardware and software for the new use proved too difficult.
Tom Milks, vice president of advertising and promotions at VirTra Systems, an Arlington, Texas, technology company, first rejected Williams's proposal. He later realized that his company's current technology actually could directly address her innovative ideas, —which eventually would have commercial as well as educational applications.
He contacted Williams to discuss the design of a 180-degree, three-screen movie theater and a process for creating three, 2-D movies with hyper-branches that seamlessly change the scenarios on the movie screens.
According to Williams, this technology is so new for communication sciences that when the virtual reality theater opens in April in Room 414 of Cleveland's Hearing and Speech Center on Euclid Avenue, it will be the first of its kind in the world.
VirTra Systems and Williams also will pilot a new biometric feedback system that will track a patient's heart rate, pulse, skin conductance and respiration to gauge his or her interest and anxiety levels during interactions in the virtual setting.
"This relationship with the university is significant," said Milks. "Newly developed treatment content could soon be packaged with the specially modified IVR-180™ (immersive virtual reality™ simulator) and licensed worldwide for speech pathology treatment."
In February, Williams and several Case information technology specialists—Thomas Knab, Michael Kubit and Wendy Shapiro—will travel to Los Angeles to learn how to produce the movies that will serve as therapy, initially for adults with stuttering problems, and a training module for speech and language pathology graduate students.
The therapy movies will offer patients the opportunity to practice ordering food at the counter inside a McDonald's restaurant as well as ordering from the drive-thru.
The theater will be built with a stage that can accommodate actors and props alongside the patient. Williams even envisions incorporating a real car into the drive-up window scenario—if she can get an automobile through the doors and up to the fourth floor of Cleveland's Hearing and Speech Center.
"We need them to be totally immersed in this as a real-life experience," said Williams. "If we cannot reach that level, then we are getting back to it being just another role-playing exercise that may not generalize to everyday life. We will be back in the same situation we are in now."
Williams plans to continue creating new movies and eventually building a library archive of virtual treatments for hundreds of speech and language problems. She also plans for the movies to provide special training for speech and language pathology graduate students who can use the simulation technology as a way to learn how to interact and assess patients with particular speech and language problems.
According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, 1 million children with speech and language impairments (not including children who have speech/language problems secondary to other conditions such as deafness) have attended public school special education programs. This new virtual reality theater has the potential to help all of those children, said Williams.
It also is a potential treatment for the increasing number of adult patients with speech and language difficulties resulting from strokes, Alzheimer's disease or dementia associated with aging and chronic health problems.
Students from Case's Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, who often join a speech therapist in treating families and their children, also could benefit from the new technology.
The new theater itself will cost approximately $90,000, and each movie could cost up to $20,000. Williams has used start-up research funds from the university for the theater and W.P. Jones Grant funds to support the training of information technology specialists in movie production and instructional design.
Williams joined the Case faculty in July 2005. She came from the University of Cincinnati, where she earned her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in communication sciences. As an undergraduate at Cincinnati, her interest in technology blossomed when she began taking computers apart to learn more about them and to construct software programs.
She went on to pioneer new software programs to aid communication sciences students. She also has been the Webmaster for a U.S. Department of Education–Project of National Significance grant called The National Center for Speech and Language Pathology in Schools (NCSLPS), a virtual resource and training center for school-based, speech-language pathologists.
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