The VR Diversity Initiative Find Solutions For Disabilities Using Virtual Reality


Although the VR Diversity Initiative is not a hackathon, it very much felt like it during the fourth VR Diversity Initiative if you were a participant taking part in the VR Design workshop. Led by virtual reality artist Continuum, participants were put into teams of three for a day to start ‘project backpack’.

The goal for Continuum was to create three accessible backpacks. Two for individuals with scoliosis and one for a man in a wheelchair. The challenge was, could the teams do it in a single day? Can they use new technologies like 3D scanning and printing? Did team members require certain skills to pull it off?

At all started before the workshop. Continuum knew two individuals with scoliosis. Perhaps a little background knowledge on scoliosis is needed to fully understand the process as well. Scoliosis is when the spine curves to the side. The spine can also twist at the same time. This twisting can pull the ribcage out of position. Although many people have not heard of scoliosis it is not rare. 3 to 4 children per 1000 need specialist supervision (Scoliosis Association UK).

Backpack for Jess

Before the workshop took place, Continuum scanned one of the individuals called Jess. You can see images above how they scanned her and decided where to put the backplate on her back. Continuum then used virtual reality (VR) software Gravity Sketch to design the backplate in 3D. With the help of Barclays Eagle Labs, they 3D printed the plate before the workshop began. The girls who were assigned to create the backpack for Jess came from design backgrounds. Young girls who studied Design or Fashion.

Here is the step by step process used to make the custom fitted backpack, with 3D scanning and 3D printed backplate for Jess.

Using the backplate as a blueprint for the backpack, the girls decided to add straps in order to distribute the weight when Jess wore the backpack. This would make it easier to carry heavier items such as shopping. They added a small pink pouch at the front and on the shoulder straps for easy access to items such as an Oyster card, wallet and keys.

Backpack for Jo

Jo is a woman with severe scoliosis and physically attended the VR Diversity Initiative. Her team members had a background in fashion design as well as 3D printing. With Jo being a costume designer for films, all members had a huge amount of previous experiences and skills they could utilise during the workshop. With the help and guidance of occupational therapist Emma Sheppard, the team was able to find what Jo needed the most for her backpack, and the best way to design the backpack.

Jo holds up a template for her backpack. This will later be 3D printed to serve the base of her backpack.
Continuum holds a Vive headset as Jo prepares to sit down and design.

The team chose to create a small shoulder backpack, that would not rest on the lowest part of Jo’s back, which also happens to be the weakest and most painful part of her spine. They chose to create a shoulder backpack which rested on her left shoulder, which is also her strongest part of her spine. The team decided to make the backpack big enough to fit an iPad, phone and wallet, avoiding the weakest and most painful parts of Jo’s spine.

They created a blueprint for what the 3D printed backplate would have to be for Jo’s back with cardboard, tape and foam. Then used this as the blueprint for the backpack. This backplate would be 3D printed after the workshop to put into Jo’s backpack.

Trolley for Ben Harris

Ben Harris is the Funds Manager for charity organisation Sportsable, which aim to promote and advocate individuals with disabilities but also provide them with help and support for athletics and sports. When he heard about the VR Design workshop he wanted to participate immediately.

With the help of Keith Pamment, Ben worked tried to find an accessible backpack solution for Ben. They quickly realised that a backpack wasn’t quite as useful for people in wheelchairs, simply because of the chair. Instead they opted to with a trolley design, which could easily detach or attach to the wheelchair.


Using Gravity Sketch they created a prototype in VR and then proceeded to use a metal trolley, some tools and 3D printing to build a trolley that would be able to hold up to 25kg. They also made it extendable, allowing the trolley to become smaller or larger depending on what people wanted to use it for.

As Ben showcased the trolley at the end of the day, he explained that this could be used for athletes at his charity. Particularly an individual who competed in archery, and did not have an electric wheelchair. Going onto various terrains was vital, and they proposed having different wheels available as well. Keith also explained that taking part in the VR Design workshop allowed had given him the confidence to potentially find a solution to 3D scan individuals in wheelchairs, materials and allow people in wheelchairs to custom create their own wheelchairs in future using VR and 3D printing as the tools and the means.

Now that the workshop has ended both Jo, Jess and Ben can use these backpack prototypes. Jo uses hers in her everyday life and is extremely happy. Continuum hopes to continue doing more of these workshops in collaboration with the VR Diversity Initiative and is currently looking for companies to donate leftover materials such as cloth or left-over backpacks for future events.

Watch the process and results in this video below:

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