PURPOSE: The current paper provides quantitative and qualitative data concerning the application of two virtual environments to the assessment and training of inexperienced powered wheelchair users, both in terms of the ability to control the chair accurately without hitting objects in the environment (manoeuvrability) and in terms of being able to find ones way around a complex environment without becoming lost (route-finding). METHOD: Six novice powered wheelchair users participated in the project, completing either the manoeuvrability or route finding components of the study. Performance measures were taken in real life pre and post training and throughout virtual reality sessions. Participants also completed a questionnaire regarding the aesthetics of the virtual environments and aspects of the powered wheelchair simulation. RESULTS: The participants rated the aesthetics of the virtual environments positively and engaged well with the virtual system. However, they found the manoeuvrability tasks considerably more difficult in virtual reality (VR) than in real life. Some difficulties with controlling the simulated wheelchair were apparent. Some improvements on virtual and real life manoeuvrability tasks and route finding were noted following conventional and virtual training. CONCLUSIONS: The study indicated that the two virtual environments represent a potentially useful means of assessing and training novice powered wheelchair users. The virtual environments however must become less challenging if they are to represent a motivating and effective means of improving performance. Further development of the way in which wheelchair movement is controlled and simulated represents a key element in this multi stage project.
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