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A Multisensory Environment Design for an Interface between Autistic and Typical Expressiveness


In developing the environment to fully accommodate the needs of possibly the most challenging of potential user groups and fulfil the requirements for collecting detailed psychological data the partnership has created a system that leaves most competing systems in its wake. These stringent specifications that demanded unrestricted movement, no user attachments, full body gesture detection, configured levels of cross modal interactive complexity, and the compilation of user interaction histories has taken immersive environment technology to a new level of sophistication. Following a series of pan European evaluation trials a parental discussion group was convened at Portsmouth under the coordination of the UK's National Autistic Society. It is hard to overstate the enthusiasm expressed by this group of parents in relation to experiencing their children at play in the MEDIATE environment. Several described how the combination of autonomy and serendipity had an immediate calming effect on their children who experience prolonged high levels of anxiety in daily life. This calming effect was sustained for some time after leaving the environment. Nearly half the children attempted communication in ways they would not normally use such as speech and all parents observed their children expressing themselves creatively in a variety of ways. At each stage of the evaluation trials carried out in the Netherlands, Spain and the U.K., the environment was made available to professional and commercial interests, press and public in a concerted dissemination effort. As a result over twenty interested parties wishing to discuss future collaborative ventures have approached the partnership. Naturally enough most of this interest has come from academics, researchers, psychologists and education authorities involved with autism or other 'special needs' groups seeking to use the environment for research purposes or as a therapeutic/diagnostic facility. The purely commercial interest from the small but growing number of manufacturers and suppliers of sensory/immersive environments is figuring strongly in our discussions and plans for the future. But MEDIATE is a far more sophisticated product than those currently available and while its configurability could accommodate a wide client base it essentially represents a new and unknown market opportunity. However, if the interest generated in MEDIATE at this early stage from within the public sector is any indication a market at some level will emerge.