Student seated in chair, wearing virtual reality headset, operating a handheld joystick to operate the virtual reality wheelchair training system. A professor is to the left of the student, watching a computer screen with an image of what the student is seeing in her virtual reality headset, a scene of a wheelchair navigating through a restaurant.

WPI and UMass Lowell Put New Spin on Wheelchair Training

Researchers create virtual reality simulator to help new users learn safe practice and operation of powered wheelchairs
LISTEN 07:28
March 27, 2024
Matthew Burgos

For many people who require use of a powered wheelchair, current methods of training don’t provide enough time and experience practicing in common and challenging settings. For example, everyday life might require a powered wheelchair user to safely navigate a busy parking lot or a crowded grocery store. However, training in rehabilitation centers often consists of driving tasks in tightly controlled environments with few distractions or obstacles. To address deficiencies in current methods, a team of faculty and students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and the University of Massachusetts Lowell has created a virtual reality­–based simulator that provides effective training in safe settings.

“Our project addresses training limitations that negatively affect wheelchair users’ ability to choose the best wheelchair for their needs and seeks to make people feel comfortable when they start using powered wheelchairs in public spaces,” says Robert Dempski, a co-principal investigator, WPI professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, a member of the Interactive Media and Game Development (IMGD) program, and managing director of the Intentional Design Studio (IDeaS).



Three researchers standing together in front of a gray drape. Professor Yunus Telliel on the left wearing a black shirt, Professor Robert Dempski in the middle wearing a white shirt, PhD student Max Chen on the right wearing a brown jacket.

Professors Yunus Telliel, Robert Dempski, and PhD student Max Chen (L-R)

The team’s project “WheelUp! Engaging communities in the development of a wheelchair training simulator for diverse bodies” has generated a simulator with high-resolution graphics, interactive technology, and game elements. With a joystick and an immersive virtual reality headset or a computer monitor, users can practice navigating a wheelchair in challenging virtual settings, such as a dimly lit restaurant or an office crowded with furniture. People can use the simulator at home or in a physical therapist’s office. “In the simulation, users can see feet and footrests of the virtual wheelchair from a first-person perspective. These details help bridge the virtual to the physical world,” says Yuko Oda, an associate professor of art and design at UMass Lowell and a co-principal investigator. “Many of our participants are thrilled and excited about how ‘real’ it feels.”


A virtual reality headset and two joystick style controllers placed on an office table, in front of a blank computer screen.

A virtual reality headset and controllers used for powered wheelchair training.

A benefit of this virtual reality-based system is the opportunity for users to make mistakes, like bumping into objects, privately and without causing injury or damage. “Skills improve with more practice and the privacy allows the person to practice these new motor skills without the added anxiety of performing in front of others,” says Erika Lewis, co-principal investigator and UMass Lowell associate professor of physical therapy and kinesiology. In addition, Lewis says, the system can reduce the travel time required for a physical therapist and a wheelchair user to train in different environments.

The WheelUp! project has the additional goal of creating more awareness about the need for greater accessibility, according to co-principal investigator Yunus Doğan Telliel, an assistant professor of anthropology in WPI’s Department of Humanities & Arts and IMGD Program. “I call this part of our work ‘advocacy design.’ We want to emphasize there are public spaces that are actually inaccessible to powered-wheelchair users, and to contribute to efforts to make our society more accessible to everyone.”

From the start of the project, the research team has gathered and incorporated input from wheelchair users about training needs, challenging real-world environments, and simulator design. “We always want to know what users really want and we engage them as participants in the design process, ultimately enhancing user independence,” says principal investigator Kelilah Wolkowicz, UMass Lowell assistant professor of mechanical engineering. 

The project is a collaboration between professors, graduate students and undergraduate students from various disciplines including neuroscience, robotics, bioengineering, mechanical engineering, physical therapy, 3D printing, 3D modeling, ethics, and signal processing. At WPI, the project is being developed in the Intentional Design Studio (IDeaS). The studio, managed by the IMGD program, facilitates project collaborations between students and professionals with experience in interactive media and games, art and design, human-computer interaction, computer science, simulation design, app development, augmented reality, and virtual reality. 

Yunus Doğan Telliel
We want to emphasize there are public spaces that are actually inaccessible to powered-wheelchair users, and to contribute to efforts to make our society more accessible to everyone.
  • Yunus Doğan Telliel
  • Assistant Professor of Anthropology

WheelUp! team members include Yihong Xu ’23, a computer science and IMGD double major, who was the lead game developer on the project and is now a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley; and Claire Li and Max Chen, WPI PhD students in computational media. Chen says she’s learning a lot through the project’s multidisciplinary and multi-university approach. “Our team benefits from the variety of perspectives our faculty and student members bring. We come from different disciplines and have diverse knowledge and expertise. Seeing varying perspectives on tackling the same task gives us opportunities to explore different ways to use technology and computational strategies to solve real-world problems.”

The research project was funded by a nearly $20,000 seed grant from WPI and UMass Lowell. The goal of the seed grant program is to launch research that can grow into larger projects with the help of funding by outside organizations. 

Through additional funding, the team hopes to incorporate more user feedback, a variety of interfaces, different models of wheelchairs, and more complex settings, like stores, uneven sidewalks, and street crossings, into the open-source simulator, with a goal of maximizing public access to the training opportunity WheelUp! provides.

Editor’s note: This article was updated 3/28/24 to include a student inadvertently omitted from the original story.