Ulrika Westergren
Umeå University, Sweden

Katrin Jonsson
Umeå University, Sweden


The combination of the senses helps us define and relate to the reality we are living in (Ayres, 1988). However, not all people can experience all of their senses. Severely mentally disabled people might have trouble using all of the senses in the traditional way (Ayres, 1988). For these people sensory stimulation is often neglected. However, with the help of Virtual Reality (VR), they can experience new environments through immersion into a virtual one. Technology is also easily controllable and adjustable to the individuals' needs, so that a minimum/maximum of stimuli can be provided without the risk of overexposure.

This paper explores the use of theories of sensory stimulation in designing virtual environments and presents a design proposal for a sensory stimulating environment. While operating on the border of the real/surreal, Virtual Reality is the guide that can be used as the link between the mind and the body, creating a sense of being where senses can be stimulated with the purpose of evoking emotions.



Virtual Reality (VR) provides a relatively safe and monitored environment, where the level of induced stress or difficulty can be changed according to the individuals' needs and wishes. The combination of realistic settings and the ease with which procedures can be monitored makes VR an invaluable tool in assessing cognitive ability and also a powerful asset in the rehabilitation of people with disabilities (Andrews et al., 1995). These are key concepts when exploring the use of VR for sensory stimulation.

Galen Brandt (www.virtualgalen.com) believes that combining technology and art is a way to heal in the real world. Her creations focus on immersion into the virtual, which she believes will change the way people will see, and experience themselves. By combining visual and auditory stimuli in a fully immersive environment, Char Davies (www.immersence.com) creates a virtual space called Osmose where the mind and body form a whole. Osmose is described as "a space for exploring the perceptual interplay between self and world, i.e. a place for facilitating awareness of one's own self as consciousness embodied in enveloping space". As shown by the work of Brandt and Davis, a fully immersive experience blurs the notion of conscious self and allows for a new way of sensory stimulation.

The Focus, Locus and Sensus model aims to explain cognitive function during a virtual experience. Developed by John and Eva Waterworth, the model spotlights the shift between presence and absence (Focus), the real and the virtual (Locus), and the conscious and unconscious (Sensus) (Waterworth et al. 2001). Breaks in presence refer to a transfer of attention from the virtual environment to inner reflection. The Locus of attention can be seen as the degree of immersion into a virtual environment that a person experiences. A fully immersive environment means that what is virtual is perceived as being real, and that people can identify themselves within that world. The third dimension of the model, the Sensus of attention refers to a transfer of the state of mind from unconscious to conscious being (Waterworth, 2001). According to Waterworth and Waterworth, virtual environments can and should be designed for both absence and presence, and consciousness and unconsciousness, which indicates that VR should be able to stimulate both active and passive participation.



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Internet Resources On Sensory Stimulation:

Camphill Ass. of N. America: www.camphillvillage.org Visited: 2013-08-01
Char Davies official homepage: www.immersence.com Visited: 2013-08-01
Galen Brandt official homepage: www.virtualgalen.com Visited: 2013-08-01
Snoezelen Official Homepage: www.rompa.com Visited: 2013-08-01

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website.  † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.