VR-Based Tourism: A Revolution in Accessibility, Inclusion and Empathy

From reducing the effects of Parkinson's disease to touring the Temple of Zeus from your living room, the rapid development of virtual reality and immersive technologies has major applications across industries and in our daily lives. Within Oxford Continuing Education, Dr Selvakumar Ramachandran FRSA, innovator, entrepreneur, and tutor for the Advanced Diploma in IT Systems Analysis and Design, is harnessing this virtual technology to enhance the accessibility of our physical environment.

Through the initiative, Eyemmersive, Dr Ramachandran and his wife, Vijayalakshmi Subramani, have created an extensive series of wheelchair perspective 360-degree videos, covering the north-east of England, London, Dublin, Sozopol, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York and San Francisco – amassing over two-thousand hours of wheelchair user perspective content. With these videos, Dr Ramachandran aims to address the unique challenges faced by those with mobility impairments in navigating unfamiliar environments.

Dr Ramachandran with Dr Sepideh Chakaveh, Course Director of the Advanced Diploma in IT Systems Analysis and Design, outside Rewley House.

One of Dr Ramachandran's videos, filmed in Oxford, situates the viewer in a wheelchair perspective, beginning outside Rewley House and continuing along St John Street, Pusey Street, St Giles, and further afield.

Dr Ramachandran describes the creation process of the videos: 'I have got high-end 8K VR-cameras / consumer end 4k VR-cameras. I fix them on my wheelchair, and at the destinations, I follow how visitors traverse, and in the same path, I create the videos. With the proprietary video editing tools and post-production tools, my wife Vijayalakshmi does all the video editing work. The process is very hardware intense.'

These videos reveal that, despite living in a society which strives to be accessible and inclusive, travel – whether for commuting or tourism purposes – can present an array of challenges for wheelchair users. As Dr Ramachandran points out, existing navigation systems, like Google Maps, fail to provide information on the conditions of pathways or essential facilities such as ramps, lifts or accessible bathrooms. With Eyemmersive’s immersive wheelchair perspective, viewers can ‘preview’ an area more accurately, allowing them to judge the width of pavements, take note of uneven ground or the position of curbs, view parking information, and discover a myriad of other vital details beyond standard street mapping that non-disabled people rarely have cause to factor into their travel plans.

This innovative use of virtual reality can be used to enhance accessibility in transportation hubs, like airports and railway stations, as well as sightseeing attractions and city centres which, Dr Ramachandran observes, can be particularly challenging environments due to crowding and potentially complex layouts for those with mobility impairments.

As well as the significant practical benefits of using virtual reality technology in this way, Dr Ramachandran is cognisant of the potential social and cultural advantages.  In a LinkedIn article he wrote about the technology, he suggested that 'by providing an immersive, first-hand experience of navigating the world from a wheelchair user's perspective, these videos encourage individuals without mobility impairments to better understand the daily challenges faced by those with mobility limitations.' Eyemmersive has previously collaborated on a virtual reality project with the Northumbria Police Force in creating a metaverse environment ‘Through My Eyes’, a video aimed at promoting understanding of the experiences of dyslexic people.

by providing an immersive, first-hand experience of navigating the world from a wheelchair user's perspective, these videos encourage individuals without mobility impairments to better understand the daily challenges faced by those with mobility limitations.

This transformative application of next-generation technology was motivated by Dr Ramachandran’s personal experiences, 'as a paraplegic and wheelchair user myself, and as a parent of my son James, who has been diagnosed with autism and learning disabilities.' While Dr Ramachandran’s use of a wheelchair perspective can empower individuals with mobility impairments to explore public spaces with confidence, the immersive 360-degree videos can also assist neurodiverse children in familiarising themselves with an area before visiting. 

Dr Ramachandran's son, James, using a virtual reality headset.

‘I’m also involved in supporting my wife’s initiative, TeenyWeenyVR, which focuses on providing edutainment, and travel preparation for children with special educational needs and disabilities. Our inclusion/accessibility-focused VR initiatives are a kind of teamwork,’ said Dr Ramachandran.

His principal intention in developing these technologies is to enable virtual reality to meet societal needs. He and his team have won two prestigious Innovate UK grants to develop this work further. In 2012, he was the recipient of the Google Scholarship for showing excellence in the field of Computer Science.

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Published 7 November 2023