Service missionary with spina bifida uses VR technology to explore a cave

A Latter-day Saint missionary with spina bifida recently explored a cave in Utah while sitting comfortably in his wheelchair.

The expedition, a first for Elder Gage Bentley, was made possible thanks to virtual reality technology.

“It was very realistic,” the 20-year-old said in a press release. “I thought I was actually in the cave with the headphones on.”

Elder Bentley is helping to develop VR experiences to increase access to things some people might not normally experience as part of his assignment as a service missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the Hutchings Institute Museum in Lehi , Utah.

What are service missions?

Elder Bentley is one of more than a dozen Latter-day Saint service missionaries who serve at the Hutchings Museum Institute. His other duties include helping to care for the animals in the museum’s live animal room and working with the marketing team to manage the website.

Worthy young men and women, ages 18-25, who are unable to serve a teaching mission for physical, mental, emotional, or other reasons may be called to a service mission. They live at home and serve locally under the ecclesiastical direction of their stake president.

Service missions can be tailored to a missionary’s unique talents, skills and abilities, offering opportunities to serve in approved charities, church operations and other stake-designated service opportunities, according to ChurchofJesusChrist.org.

There are more than 2,000 service missionaries currently serving around the world, according to church publications.

Cave exploration using VR technology

Hutchings staff members recently transported equipment to Indian Cave, a cave in the Lehi foothills, to create a detailed virtual experience. Elder Bentley was unable to go in person, but still felt the experience of seeing and climbing inside the cave using virtual reality technology.

Hutchings produced a YouTube video to capture his experience.

“I actually wondered if it would be as real as I imagined the cave being, but it was quite real,” said Elder Bentley. “With VR there’s so much you can do to help people who are disabled or unable to come to specific places or see parts of Utah that they wouldn’t normally be able to see .

“With the Indian Cave,” he continued, “I’ve been able to look at the VR and walk around in the video that’s on the museum’s website and just explore around. You wear the VR and with the hand controls it looks like you’re right there.”

Hutchings is embracing new technologies like this to create and deliver more accessible experiences for people with disabilities and limitations, said Daniela Larson, the institute’s executive director.

“Technology allows us to provide an experience that is very similar to the real thing,” she said. “Additionally, some virtual reality experiences allow more than one person to participate, so you can share the experience with your friends.”

Will VR technology be a game changer for people with disabilities? The elder Bentley says it depends on the person, but he’s ready to virtually explore more of Utah’s great outdoors. He has made a list for the Hutchings VR team.

“With VR you’re able to see a different perspective — a different perspective,” he said. “Now we are able to be in the cave, in the Narrows, or in Zion through the power of technology.”

Elder Gage Bentley is helping develop virtual reality technology at the Hutchings Museum Institute as part of his assignment as a Latter-day Saint missionary.

Hutchings Museum Institute

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