Evan W. Gadda first went skiing at the age of 15 on a sit ski, but the experience stayed with him.
With the help of virtual reality, and a team of roughly 10 people with @One Digital Media at the University of Nevada Reno, or UNR, Gadda was able relive the the experience and “leave” his wheelchair, as shown by a video.
“It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve experienced in my life,” Gadda said. “I’ve always want to ski again. So the VR helped me experience it.”
Gadda, now 47, has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He’s a paraplegic and has been confined to his wheelchair his entire life. He was born 3-and-a-half months premature, he told McClatchy with the help of Michelle Rebaleati, a multimedia production specialist with @One Digital Media.
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However, Gadda was never one to let his condition to prevent him from pursuing his passions. For 35 years, he’s performed in numerous musical theater productions, including “Beauty and The Beast,” “Les Misérables” and “A Christmas Carol.” He has also performed at Carnegie Hall.
Evan started his degree in musical theater in 1989 at UNR. And even when the musical theater program at UNR shut down in 2003, he kept performing and has returned to the school to earn his master’s degree in musical theater now that the program started back up.
“I never let that stop me,” Gadda said. “That’s what you have to do.”
Virtual reality computer programs allow users, like Gadda, to immerse themselves in virtual environments – some fiction, some gathered from real events. Events are captured with cameras that gather 360 degree-footage, which allows VR users to physically move their head, and sometimes, body, around a virtual environment.
VR has been used in gaming through tools such as the Oculus Rift headset and its hand-held accessories. VR is also used outside of entertainment. News outlets, such as the The Washington Post and The New York Times, have also used VR to enhance reporting. And VR has also been used by medical doctors to help with surgery and potentially, aiding those stricken with chronic pain.
A new studio at UNR, called @Reality, aims to extend the VR experience to students and faculty. The studio, which was unveiled last month, has four dedicated VR stations, with two Oculus Rift VR systems, two HTC Vive headsets, VR computers and more, according to the UNR.
The facility is open to students and is not only designed for fun, but to also assist faculty and students with academic research.
Rebaleati said VR has vast potential.
“After seeing how Evan reacted, it really put it into context that this can change the world. And I want (to) inspire as many people as I can now knowing that it has this much effect,” she said.
Rebaleati said that Gadda has been adamant about pushing the VR experience to be as widely available as possible. Gadda said VR helps provide him with an outlet to experience things that his conditions would otherwise make difficult for him.
The @One Digital Media team also helped Gadda experience the Burning Man, a festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where thousands of people gather to form a “temporary metropolis dedicated to art, self-expression, and self-reliance,” according to the event’s official website.
Gadda said he’s always wanted to go, but was unable to physically attend because of his Asthma and the dust in the area.
“With all the no’s I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime, VR is the first ‘yes,’ ” Gadda said.
Rebaleati said VR could also help users to build empathy for people living in environments different from their own.
“But you can really understand someone’s story… you can really get a better sense of how people are living their lives or what a place is like when you put on a virtual reality headset,” Rebaleati said.
Correction: An earlier version of the story said The University of Nevada, Reno’s musical theater program stopped in 1989. The story has been updated to reflect that it originally stopped in 2003.