June 19, 2000
By Vicky Uhland
Special to the Denver Rocky Mountain News
Will Spence knows first-hand that "handicapped accessible" doesn't always mean what it says.
Spence, who is paralyzed from the neck down, opens doors by pushing them with a metal wand he's placed in his mouth. After years of trying to navigate throughout city buildings that aren't the most handicapped-friendly, he got the idea of creating a virtual reality Web site that would give the disabled an opportunity to view public buildings before they visit them.
"Knowing what physical barriers to expect ahead of time is very important when you are in a wheelchair," Spence said.
Spence teamed up with two Metropolitan State College of Denver professors, Jane Broida in therapeutic recreation and Clark Germann in technical communication, to form the Community Access Through Technology project.
Last year, the trio got a three-year, $286,000 grant from the Department of Education to design virtual reality tours of three Colorado locations: the Pepsi Center, the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park and the 20th Street Community Recreation Center in Denver.
The 20th Street Rec Center tour is set to be up and running on CATT's Web site, clem.mscd.edu/catt, in early July. The Pepsi Center tour is expected to be completed in February 2001, followed by the National Sports Center tour in spring of 2002.
Broida said she, Germann and Spence chose the Internet for the virtual reality tour because "we want it where the most people can access it." Within the next couple years, she foresees a site where there's more interactivity with users, including a virtual skiing expedition.
CATT applied for a $500,000 grant from RTD earlier this year, but was turned down. The grant proposal called for mapping of the entire system and featured interactive tasks such as getting on and off light rail or buying a ticket.
When the 20th Street Rec Center tour goes online, visitors to the site can enter the building and navigate through the space, noting access areas, ramps and elevators. There will be voiceover and written annotation, including information such as how high the elevator buttons are, where the restrooms are located, whether or not there are curb cuts on the ramps and where the bus stops are.
"If we can provide that information, then we could do a world of good, not only for the disabled but also for the elderly or people with strollers," Broida said.
The video is being shot by Scott Houck of the Center for Academic Technology using a $27,000 state-of-the-art Panoscan digital panorama camera. About 20 Metro students, some of them disabled, are helping with the shooting and electronically stitching the photos together to create a seamless tour.
Prior to the acquisition of the Panoscan camera in November, Houck relied on a tedious process of taking hundreds of photos and processing them through Quick Time, software that creates a panoramic view.
Candace Grier, who became the project spokeswoman after Spence suffered a bout of poor health, also serves as the model in the videos. She said the CATT Web site is "just the tip of an iceberg."
"The Web and computer technology give people with disabilities a lot more options. They have more control over when they can tour a building - they can do it in the middle of the night, in their home. They can make an informed decision before they get stuck."
Grier, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, said that fear of the unknown is a big issue for the disabled.
"This Web site will alleviate a lot of stress, a lot of concern, a lot of anxiety that people with disabilities have," she said.
June 19, 2000