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UAB’s Lei Liu Awarded R01 Grant to Study ways Virtual Reality can Assist with Low Vision Rehabilitation

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An R01 grant was awarded to Lei Liu, PhD, FAAO, UAB School of Optometry associate professor, by the National Eye Institute. The grant will allow Dr. Liu to 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 a low income or to be 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.


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