Adam Jesberger
John Jones

Fjord Makeshop: Combining Empathy and Virtual Reality for Wheelchair Users

At Fjord, we’re always focused on human impact when we design services and experiences. In the Fjord Makeshop, we’ve been experimenting with ways that virtual reality (VR) can facilitate empathy to help people better understand unfamiliar situations. There is a definite challenge with this, however, as VR can often trivialize experiences, turning them into what feels like a game. Our mission was to overcome this obstacle and, through our Design Study process, find a way to apply VR and immersive experiences to create more understanding.

For this project, we sought inspiration from Jason DaSilva’s work on AXS map and the story chronicled in his film, When I Walk, and we were fortunate to be able to consult with him as we moved from research into product conception. We’re also fans of the Fjord Austin’s Chaotic R&D wheelchair fitness tracker, which empowers and enables the wheelchair users to participate in the fitness tracking craze.

Immersion to Training

We began by conducting interviews with wheelchair-user friends and colleagues. Certain patterns and common problems emerged throughout our discussions: stories about disastrous first days in wheelchairs, the challenges of understanding a new complex environment, navigating areas where pedestrians don’t understand the needs of wheelchair users, difficulties developing an understanding for angles of concrete, height of curbs, etc. All of these challenges are particularly prominent in an urban environment, like New York City.

As one person said: “I think the worst thing about not being able to walk is adjusting to how slowly you have to do everything. You have to wait longer to use the bathroom, wait longer to go to bed, go to the kitchen, stand up, sit down, you have to put on your shows slower than normal, everything you’re used to doing fast you’re now doing slow.”

We realized that if we were going to use VR to tackle this problem, we needed to ensure it didn’t feel like a game; we did not want to create a superficial or insensitive experience. This led us quickly to the idea of a Wheelchair Training Program – a simulator offering a safe way to engage with a complex new environment and serving as a way to understand the new obstacles and issues.

It immediately became clear to us that details matter, especially when navigating highly populated urban spaces, and that we needed to develop a proof of concept which would be respectful, compelling and immersive. We saw in the research that wheelchair users face several common challenges: articulate steering, spatial relationships, and negotiating obstacles. These could all be confronted in the process of negotiating a single intersection. With these ideas and this basic framework in place, we set out to create the prototype.


Crafting our Proof of Concept

Designing for the functioning prototype involved coming up with solutions for both the physical hardware and the VR software. Given only a few short weeks to accomplish this project, we had no choice but to become Industrial Designers and VR Developers practically overnight.

For the physical wheelchair, we had to devise a simple way to mount our hardware without directly altering the chair itself. The intent was to keep it simple and ensure it could readily be attached to a wide variety of wheelchairs. This led to developing a custom-built housing for the sensors, which we created out of plastic on a CNC machine in the Fjord Makeshop. Our design ensures that the wheels spin freely, but also allow the mounted sensors to capture data. These sensors were then wired to an Arduino board located in the chair’s seat to record the user actions and sync them with the VR environment.

We developed the VR environment in Unity 3D and focused on functional clarity over realistically rendered detail so that we could develop the prototype more quickly. The world depicted in our training program appears light, bright, and airy – almost ethereal. This made the environment, obstacles, and intents easier to understand and resulted in an experience which feels less intimidating. Throughout this rapid design process, we stayed true to the overall goal: easing a user’s stressful first foray into using a wheelchair.

Looking Ahead

While we feel that VR is still in its infancy when it comes to significantly benefiting and impacting society, there is definite potential for utilizing the technology to improve lives, and that will only increase in the future.


*Many talented people contributed to this study as we moved from study, to service to proof of concept. We’d like to thank: Alwin Tong (VR Development); Rob Brogan, Whitney Braunstein, Habiba Sugich and Kristen Kersh (Design Research); Zoey Forbath (Business Design); Roman Kalantari (Creative Technology Director); and Ali Bati (Fjord Immersion Participant from Parsons School of Design) and Jason DaSilva.



Adam Jesberger
John Jones

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