Walking with Reality Opening up a new world for individuals with disabilities through virtual reality

Evan Gadda in his wheelchair with a VR headset on

Walking with Reality

Opening up a new world for individuals with disabilities through virtual reality

What began as a 360-degree video project to document everyday life at Burning Man blossomed into something truly exceptional.


A team of talented videographers from University Libraries at the University of Nevada, Reno were invited to attended the 2016 Burning Man festival to create a 360-degree video for Burning Man’s Media Mecca. Burning Man is the radically inclusive, counter-culture festival that takes place in the Northern Nevada desert a little less than two hours from Reno. The result of this project was a documentary-style 360-degree virtual reality video titled The Window to Radical Inclusion.

The Window to Radical Inclusion features people from around the world who regularly attend the Burning Man festival. The video opens a new window for those interested in experiencing what everyday life and adventure is like during the dusty week on the playa. It is meant to give viewers insight to the one of-a-kind experience Burning Man offers by transporting them to different and sometimes obscure locations within Black Rock City. The video was narrated by three Burners who share stories about their unique experiences and describe what Burning Man has to offer to festival attendees. This piece was created with permission from Burning Man’s Media Mecca and was made possible by the University of Nevada, Reno University Libraries.

“While editing footage my Libraries colleague Harry Thomas mentioned that long-time Nevada student Evan Gadda had an interest in attending Burning Man,” @One Multimedia Production Specialist Michelle Rebaleati said. “We were finishing The Window to Radical Inclusion and were aware that it would take an entire team of dedicated people to get Evan out there. The playa dust would be tough on his asthma and on his wheelchair. So, instead of actually taking him there, we decided to bring the experience to him in the @One inside the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. We used an HTC VIVE virtual reality headset and our newly created 360 video to help transport Evan to this new environment.”

Gadda immersed himself in The Window to Radical Inclusion, and Rebaleati had a spark for a new idea. “Because virtual reality creates simulated experiences that generate real emotions,” Rebaleati said. “I thought I could create a special edit for Evan to give him an even broader, more diverse and in-depth Burning Man experience.

“I thought, ‘Why not film his reaction to our VR content and see how this technology would suit him?’ It was in that moment the idea for a different kind of virtual reality video was born,” she said.

It was in that moment that we discovered how virtual reality technology and content could be created and used to positively impact the lives of individuals with disabilities

After we saw how Evan reacted to our film, we knew we were onto something major,” she said. “ It was in that moment that we discovered how virtual reality technology and content could be created and used to positively impact the lives of individuals with disabilities who have a desire to participate in particularly hard-to-get-to special events or try a new sport that they’d otherwise never be able to experience.”

This was the “Aha!” moment that lead to the creation of a second video titled Walking With Reality. Watch it below.


Evan Gadda

  • Evan Gadda has been attending the University of Nevada, Reno for approximately 29 years.
  • He was born 3 months premature and has cerebral palsy.
  • He is 48 years old and has earned two degrees.
  • He has performed in musical productions for over 35 years.
  • Evan wants to earn a master’s degree in musical theatre.

Evan Gadda is a 48-year-old University of Nevada, Reno graduate with two degrees, a current graduate student studying musical theater and an accomplished actor. He has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound. He’s a fairly well-known figure on campus as he’s been studying at the University for 25 years. He’s often found hanging out with friends in the @One area of the University’s Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center or motoring his power wheelchair across campus. He has an unforgettable laugh and is always eager to have a conversation.

“My first love is musical theater,” Gadda said. “I’ve been acting since I was 12 years old, and I don’t have any plans to stop! Being on stage makes me feel like I am home.”

Gadda has directed and performed in community theatre in the Reno area for many years. He describes himself as a musical theatre buff who travels to New York City occasionally to see shows. His first show was   Bubbling Brown Sugar in 1977.  A few of his favorite shows include, but are not limited to: Side Show, Aspects of Love, Miss Saigon, Jekyll & Hyde and  Les Miserables.

Gadda has an undeniable passion for life and sees art in just about everything.

“As an artist, I’ve always wanted to make the trip to the playa and experience, first-hand, all of the artistic expression that happens at Burning Man,” he said. “The sheer size and magnitude of what Burning Man has to offer is something I’ve been interested in experiencing for a very long time.”

Taking Even to the Virtual PLaya

When production and editing were complete on The Window to Radical Inclusion, Rebaleati and Thomas decided it was time to transport Gadda to the Black Rock Desert a second time for a more personal and intimate experience. They also had another surprise up their sleeves for Gadda.

“I met Evan in the atrium of the Knowledge Center when I was showcasing short VR video on the ‘ Inside the mind of DaVinci’ sculpture that was on display on the lawn outside of the Knowledge Center,” Rebaeati said. “He was instantly elated because he’d always dreamt of attending the festival and taking in all of the amazing art.”

At the first screening of the DaVinci video, Gadda watched the film five times in a row.

That’s when the Libraries team realized they could utilize VR technology and content to give people with disabilities an opportunity to experience something they’d otherwise never be able to do.

Rebaleati worked with Gadda and planned a day where the Libraries @One team could virtually take him back to the playa and beyond.

Rebaleati asked Evan if he was interested in participating, and he said yes.

Evan VR profile

Walking with Reality

In order to take Gadda back to the playa for the full Burning Man experience, Rebaleati set up an extended edit of The Window to Radical Inclusion video in the Master Studio on the first floor of the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. This 2,000 square foot television production studio had the space necessary to allow Gadda to drive his wheelchair (virtually, of course) across the playa. Rebaleati used a mobile HTC Vive set-up to help give Gadda the best, most realistic VR experience. Thomas helped drive Gadda’s wheelchair, and the entire production team was present to help capture Gadda’s reaction to the video.

Filming Facts:

  • Filming Started on June 27th, 2017.
  • The project was completed in 4 months.
  • Walking with Reality was primarily filmed on the RED Dragon.
  • Throughout the course of the 4 months, 10 people worked with this project.
  • The video has been posted to Unofficial Network, RGJ (owned by USA Today), VRScout, Stoked, McClatchy Networks, and will be participating in SIMA Classroom worldwide.
  • 20,000+ online views.
  • 10 screening of the documentary. Some examples include:
    • Nevada Library Association
    • University of Nevada, Reno Virtual Reality Meetup
    • Grand Opening of @Reality
  • After filming of this documentary, the virtual reality lab within the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, @Reality, has opened and is now available for all students at the University of Nevada, Reno.
  • Since the grand opening in November 2017, @Reality has been booked 700 times.

Filming for Walking With Reality started on June 27, 2017, and the project was completed in four months. Nine people assisted Rebaleati as she produced, directed and edited the video. As she worked, she often reflected on the quote by Chris Milk, a virtual reality entrepreneur who said, “Virtual reality is the ultimate empathy machine. These experiences are more than documentaries. They’re opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes."

While editing the film, Rebaleati said she was moved to tears multiple times.

“I kept thinking, ‘I need to make Evan proud with this,’” she said. “My primary intention was to make sure that people watching Walking With Reality would feel empathy over pity for Evan. Empathy is the shared emotion of walking in another person’s shoes, so to speak. Virtual reality is the shared experience of seeing with the same eyes. It was a joy and an honor to tell a story that illustrates that parallel.”

After virtually going back to Burning Man’ Gadda got to virtually leave his wheelchair and went skiing at Squaw Valley for the first time in 33 years.

“As a kid I loved to ski,” Gadda said. “I used to ski at Squaw Valley, California with my family, but as a wheelchair bound man I haven’t been able to ski for many, many years. Virtual reality got me out of my wheelchair and back on the mountain again. I felt like I was walking. It was incredible.”

Rebaleati said she had no idea that the skiing experience her University Libraries colleague Shawn Sariti had produced was the exact same mountain and ski run that Evan had skied when he was fifteen years old.

As I watched Evan’s physical and emotional reaction to our VR content I realized that virtual reality has powerful potential

"As I watched Evan’s physical and emotional reaction to our VR content I realized that virtual reality has powerful potential beyond the simple ‘wow’ factor and entertainment value,” Rebaleati said.

After Rebaleati met Gadda, witnessed his emotional and raw response to her VR content and understood how her work could provide him with new, meaningful experiences, she and Gadda became fast friends.

“The relationship Evan and I have is quite special,” Rebaleati said. “The VR content we are producing is breaking down barriers between able-bodied individuals and individuals with disabilities.”

Gadda described his wheelchair as a barrier to building relationships. He said many times people are intimidated by the chair which results in them not saying hello or introducing themselves.  

Gadda said when Rebaleati approached him and presented the idea to document his reaction to experiencing Burning Man and VR skiing, he was a little afraid. He also said his grandmother taught him to take risks as a child.

“My grandmother would say, ‘Baby Love, there’s one word that will change your life and eliminate fear, and that word is yes.’ I could hear her speaking to me as I thought about opening myself up to Michelle’s idea,” Gadda said. “Ultimately, I said yes, and I know my grandmother would be so proud of Walking With Reality.”

The Ripple Effect: Opening Hearts and Minds

After releasing Walking with Reality, University Libraries was contacted by a teacher from the Porter County Career Tech Center in Valparaiso, Indiana. Marketing instructor Beth Ammons reached out after seeing the film because she had an 18-year-old student with disabilities she felt could benefit from the Squaw Valley virtual reality skiing video featured in Walking With Reality. Ammons recognized the powerful potential virtual reality could have on her student.

Ammons’ student, Katherine, suffers from Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, a disorder that affects the connective tissue in many parts of the body. Connective tissue provides strength and flexibility to structures such as bones, ligaments, muscles and blood vessels. Katherine had long desired to go skiing but was unable to participate in this activity due to her medical condition.

University Libraries shared the virtual reality skiing video with Ammons, and she helped fulfill her student Katherine’s life-long dream to ski.

Ammons said, “I told Katherine about a ski trip I had taken to Colorado. She hugged me tight and told me that she wished she could ski but could never do it because of her illness. That’s when the Walking With Reality video gave me the idea to give this gift to Katherine.”

Life is not about things. It is about what we do for each other.

“It was my goal to use the VR headset in the CAD room at my school to give Katherine this experience as my Christmas (2017) gift to her,” she added. Life is not about things. It is about what we do for each other.”

When Gadda learned about the positive impact Walking With Reality was having on individuals with disabilities like himself he said he looks forward to sharing his VR experience with more people with disabilities.

“I want other people to be able to have the same experience I’ve had through VR,” Gadda said. “I want them to also know what it feels like to temporarily get out of the chair and live the life they once had. This chair is my friend, but it’s also nice to be out of it for a while.”

Evan in atrium

Walking with Reality’s Media Impact

To date, Walking With Reality has received more than 2,000,000 views online and has been shared across a variety of social media channels, including Humankind Stories, part of the USA Today Network; VR Scout, one of the world’s leading immersive media companies, reaching more than 150 million people annually; STOKED, the social media network for extreme sports; and Unofficial Networks, the ski bum’s guide to the outdoor news and entertainment.

The Social Impact Media Awards is using the film in the SIMA CLASSROOM program. SIMA CLASSROOM is a ground-breaking current-affairs online film library for educators. It is a diverse and expansive “Netflix for educators” that takes global education beyond academic walls and equips students with the skills, mindsets and cultural and global competence required in our ever-changing world. It is comprised of outstanding films that capture inspiring social innovation programs, as well as character-driven stories that give students first-person insight into the pulse, the people and the movements behind today’s global issues. SIMA Classroom is more than a dynamic teaching resource.

Major media outlet The McClatchy Co. featured Walking With Reality across its entire news network of more than 30 major news dailies like The Miami Herald, The Kansas City Star, and The Sacramento Bee. The Reno Gazette-Journal and television stations KRNV and KTVN in Reno also covered the story.

In addition to going viral and gaining traction across national, regional and local media, Walking With Reality is also starting to win awards. The film won the Award of Merit: Special Mention for the Impact DOCS Awards. It was a finalist in the Impact Video category for the Social Impact Media Awards (SIMA) competition. It has also been entered into the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, Cinema @ The Edge and My Hero Film Festival.

Inspiring the Next Generation of VR Application and Content Development

Soon after Walking With Reality was completed Gadda decided to enroll in a University class taught by Assistant Professor of Psychology Paul MacNeilage and Associate Professor of Computer Science Eelke Folmer.

According to MacNeilage and Folmer virtual reality holds great promise, but technological development is challenging. The challenge lies in understanding

Eelke Folmer
Eelke Folmer, associate professor
  1. How we experience the world around us
  2. What is required for these experiences to be realistic
  3. How we can develop technology to satisfy these requirements

Virtual Reality explores how these challenges can be addressed using knowledge from psychology, neuroscience and computer science.

“VR is an area of growth,” MacNeilage said. “This new media platform makes it possible for people to have experiences that would be difficult or impossible to have otherwise. The goal of our class is to increase student’s VR literacy in order to give them the tools necessary to develop new, innovative applications and content for this cutting-edge, emerging medium.”

The class is comprised of both computer science and psychology majors.  The interdisciplinary composition of students is both unique and beneficial.

“For computer science students, VR is a ‘human in the loop’ problem,” MacNeilage said. “These students bring forward the hardware, software and programming expertise necessary to develop new VR applications. Psychology students understand how to make sense of the human experience and how individuals interact with the technology. It’s a great partnership of skills.”

MacNeilage said having Gadda in class has been great.

“I’ve never had a student like Evan in my class before,” he said. “Evan is passionate about VR, and it shows. I hope to share  Walking With Reality with the class to help demonstrate the powerful impact VR can have on individuals who want to use the technology to experience the impossible. Evan’s story is very inspiring, and I am so happy he is in our class.”

In addition to offering virtual reality courses, the University is now home to one of the only academic focused virtual and augmented reality studios in the country.

@Reality, virtual + augmented reality studio, is located inside the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center and consists of clear glass walls running floor to ceiling. It is staffed with a team of experts well-versed in the understanding of conceptual and technical issues surrounding the creation and consumption of virtual and augmented reality products. A full-cycle "ecosystem" of support is provided to all users. From creation of media, to utilization of hardware and software, to distribution and consumption of content, @Reality staff are prepared to assist and guide users in achieving their virtual and augmented reality goals.

“There is a lot of support for VR on campus, and our University is forward-looking in this regard,” MacNeilage said. “In the future, VR technology will become less clunky, and better adapted to human needs and capabilities. This is exactly why we wanted to bring together computer science and psychology students. These are the students who will have the necessary skills and knowledge to create the next iteration of VR.”

Within the context of higher education, the New Media Consortium postulates a wide range of possible scholarly applications for VR. Possibilities include using VR for teaching empathy and other soft skills, to exploring environments that are too dangerous or unreachable, and the New Media Consortium observes, too, that "VR may one day be able to compete with real reality, and once it does, the possibilities are endless."

"Many people do not completely grasp the possibilities that surround virtual and augmented reality until they experience it firsthand," said Daniel Fergus, manager of student digital media technology for University Libraries, Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center. "It was our goal in opening and running @Reality that University Libraries would help expose a diverse range of students and faculty to academic and research-based VR and AR activities taking place across campus while also offering a space for play and individual exploration."

University Libraries is leading the charge to help  build the VR culture at the University. To date, University Libraries is aware of approximately 70 faculty members using VR/AR technology in their teaching or studying VR/AR effects, technology and content in their research.

Now that  Walking With Reality is reaching more people each day the University Libraries @Reality team hopes to inspire and foster a VR culture on campus.

“With the opening of @Reality, the success of our films and the support of academic researchers on campus, I hope students and faculty can begin to come together to learn about and immerse themselves in the virtual world in order to help improve our world,” Rebaleati said.

In order to help further the use, exploration and understanding of VR technology, Rebaleati is organizing a series of educational sessions.  VR Sessions takes place every Tuesday at 5 p.m. over the course of the 2018 spring semester. All University community members with an interest in VR/AR are welcome to attend. @Reality Virtual + Augmented Reality Studio staff will teach and share tips on how to effectively use 360-degree video and spherical audio equipment, as well as Unity game development software. Attendees will have the opportunity to meet and listen to guest speakers from across the University with expertise in VR/AR technologies.

“I wanted to organize a series of educational sessions to help those with an interest in learning how to use VR/AR equipment so that when they landed in the field with the high-tech gear they’d be prepared to hit the ground running,” Rebaleati said. “Maybe a session attendee will be the next  Walking With Reality creator?”

Looking Ahead

The success of Walking With Reality, coupled with Gadda’s willingness to say yes to this project has helped transform and open the hearts and minds of millions. The film offers a new perspective on what it’s like to be a person with disabilities.

I know people now view me differently and embrace me for who I am. The film helped people see me as a person, not as handicapped.

This was a truly breathtaking experience for me,” Gadda said. I know people now view me differently and embrace me for who I am. The film helped people see me as a person, not as handicapped. All of these new, unexpected interactions have also helped me improve my speech because I am talking to more and more people!”

As a direct result of the film, Gadda received an offer to go skiing in Park City, Utah with the National Ability Center, an organization that empowers individuals of all abilities by building self-esteem, confidence and lifetime skills through sport, recreation and educational programs.

“I am honored to have an invitation to go skiing extended to me,” Gadda said. “ Walking With Reality wasn’t even about skiing, it was about taking me to Burning Man. The film impacted a high school student in Indiana and also opened a new door for me to actually get on the mountain and go skiing. How awesome is that?!”

Through his experience in filming Walking With Reality, Gadda discovered a passion and interest in learning more about VR technology. He’s currently enrolled in Paul MacNeilage and Eelke Folmer’s Virtual Reality course, studying VR to learn how to use it to its full potential and generate new content.

“The ultimate goal for me is to actually walk using VR,” Gadda said. “I want to be able to virtually get out of my chair and walk up to someone, look them in the eye and introduce myself and have a conversation. I want to see the faces of people who are introducing themselves to me, eye-to-eye, not just sitting down.”

When asked what he’ll do next Gadda offered advice to folks thinking about trying something new. He reflected on the advice his grandmother gave him some time ago and thought about his new friendship with the film’s director Michelle Rebaleati. Gadda was recently rushed into Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, Nevada’s musical fraternity, and is directing a play in Reno that opened in March. He also has his sights set on starring in a Broadway play.

“Say yes to everything within reason, and embrace each offer that comes to you. Think about it,” Gadda said. “I keep thinking about my grandmother and the profound impact she had on my life. She raised me, and I know she’d be so proud. She’d also likely say something like … ‘It’s about damn time, Evan. Always use your head. It’s not just a button, and just remember to keep your spine from unraveling.’”

Rebaleati and Gadda have a truly special connection. They went from being complete strangers to best friends.

“I didn’t even know who she was,” Gadda said. “She’s gone above and beyond over the last several months. Her knowledge of VR is awesome; she’s inspiring others to develop new VR applications and content. She’s supported and encouraged my acting and directing, but even more than all of this she wants to help other people like me do things they currently can’t do by turning the unrealistic into the realistic. She is incredible, and I am so grateful for her and the work of the @Reality team, who has helped tell my story.”

As Gadda and Rebaleati reflect on the outcome of this grand experiment they hope to keep the momentum going and want to encourage people facing challenges to remember: You can do anything you want; you just have to have the right tools.

I had absolutely no idea that we’d be able to transform and impact so many people.

”We never expected the film to go this far,” Rebaleati said. “Evan was recently contacted by a friend who saw Walking With Reality on MSNBC’s AM Joy. When I began working on this project, I had absolutely no idea that we’d be able to transform and impact so many people.”