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An R01 grant awarded to Lei Liu, PhD, FAAO, UAB School of Optometry associate professor, by the National Eye Institute/National Institutes of Health, will study the use of virtual reality and intelligent tutoring to make low vision rehabilitation more accessible and affordable.

Currently, orientation and mobility (O&M) rehabilitation is the primary method to restore independent travel to individuals with low vision, improving their quality of life. However, for a number of reasons, it isn’t always within reach for a large portion of the low vision population.

Learning to navigate real streets with low vision is dangerous.  An O&M specialist has to accompany a low vision traveler throughout training to ensure safety. Such training can take many hours.

There is a chronic shortage of O&M specialists. These specialists also cluster in large cities. For many low vision travelers, who rely on other people to take them to places, practicing O&M skills with a specialist everyday can be very difficult.

Individuals with low vision tend to have low income or are unemployed. Therefore, many of them have difficulty paying for the hours of one-on-one training with a specialist because such service is not reimbursable.  

“We believe that if low vision travelers can learn O&M skills in a safe environment in their convenient location and time and if such learning is self-regulated, with minimal intervention from an O&M specialist, we can overcome the accessibility and affordability barriers to O&M rehabilitation. This led to the idea of Virtual Reality-based Intelligent Orientation and Mobility Specialists (VR-IOMSs)”.

A VR-IOMS is a computer program that mimics human O&M specialists’ teaching strategies and tactics to conduct automated and individualized O&M skill training to individuals with low vision in safe virtual environments. When VR-IOMS courses are delivered through the internet, low vision travelers can receive quality O&M training at their convenient location and time with little cost.

This research is built on Liu’s previous study of teaching O&M skills in virtual streets. It includes the technical development of VR-IOMSs, in collaboration with the University of Alabama, and a clinical trial to compare the training effectiveness of the VR-IOMS and human O&M specialists, in collaboration with Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.

The project is funded for 57 months with a budget of $2.5 million. The long-term objective of the research is to integrate VR-IOMSs into O&M rehabilitation practice so that this valuable service becomes accessible and affordable to all who may benefit from it.