New Thinking

Fixing VR’s Accessibility Problem

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When it comes to accessibility, virtual reality has huge potential. The immersive nature of VR enables all of us to see and experience things we may not be able to in real life, like climbing Mount Everest or touring the Oval Office. It gives us the power to shoot fireballs or fly like a bird, to teleport or put up a force field. But ironically, VR’s power to stretch us beyond our usual abilities is often unavailable to those with disabilities.

According to Brian Van Buren, developer, accessibility specialist, and wheelchair user, “We’re bringing our bodies with us into VR whether we like it or not.” He’s excited about the future for the technology — “VR is the next barrier removal, allowing your brain to be in a different space.” Ultimately, he says, “we need to design for different body types and abilities.”

Twenty percent of gamers have a disability, and it can be frustrating for these users to find that VR environments aren’t fully available to them. “As VR presents opportunities, it can also present barriers,” says VR accessibility consultant and specialist Ian Hamilton. “There are some people for whom VR just isn’t an option, but there are many others who can be allowed access to VR, so long as the software itself is designed in an inclusive way, often by something as simple as allowing a bit of flexibility in how the game is controlled.”

For Radial Games developer Andy Moore, a mistake in the early stages of development led his team to reassess their game’s accessibility. Radial’s VR building game Fantastic Contraption includes a “desk scale” mode that can be played sitting down. It also includes less obvious accessibility features: During testing, the team realized that they needed to adjust the game controls to be usable with only one hand when one of the team forgot to charge the batteries in their controller. That change kickstarted a much more flexible approach to the game’s design.

Even a game designed with accessibility in mind, such as the spy-themed obstacle course Unseen Diplomacy, can still have limitations. The game’s team did brilliant work ensuring that it was accessible to those who were color blind, had physical disabilities, or deafness. Yet the game itself involves simulating heights and enclosed spaces, so is presented with a warning to players with vertigo and claustrophobia. In a list of accessibility issues in VR at Gamasutra, Ian Hamilton stresses that even with limitations, developers are “still building something that people will love. It’s a question of expanding that out, increasing the number of people who are going to be able to be able to enjoy the experience, and keeping an open mind about what forms that enjoyment can take.”

Accessibility is not exclusively about disability. For instance, most developers are building worlds for an average height, and those who fall outside of a certain range, whether because they’re a child, an NBA player, or a wheelchair user, find that motion tracking doesn’t work as efficiently as it should. Also, while some headsets track eye movements from the height of the user, they don’t accommodate for those who can’t stand, who may wish to experience VR from a height they don’t experience the real world. Examples like these lead to reasonable concerns that user testing isn’t being designed into VR. As Brian van Buren noted in his talk at VRDC last year, “many developers are simply trying to make it work rather than make it work well.” Incorporating strong UX design standards into production enables a range of modifications, ensuring that anyone who puts on a VR headset can have the same type of experience.

The next stage of VR will incorporate haptic technology, enabling VR users to feel objects and experience touch. Body suits and other wearable devices have already been made for research purposes. These technologies will help VR go far beyond the sphere of gaming and extend its capacity to create therapeutic or educational experiences. A VR and robotics experience gives amputees and paraplegics the experience of walking again and can even repair nerve damage. While VR technologies may not always be developed with accessibility for different abilities in mind, they will almost certainly find their way to those users. What may seem trivial or gimmicky to games developers could actually prove as useful to the disabled as digital assistants like Siri and Alexa.

Conversely, other projects help non-disabled users simulate certain disabilities in VR to cultivate empathy and understanding. The 2016 documentary “Notes on Blindness” recounts the sight loss of British writer and theologian John Hull. As his eyesight failed, he began recording audio cassettes of his experiences. These tapes were transformed into a VR to accompany the film, “Into Darkness,” which carefully details and mimics the loss of one sense and the heightening of others. It immerses the user within John’s world, interspersed with faded memories and reflections on losing sight.

Similarly, A study simulating synaesthesia in users, with a particular focus on relieving pain through distraction, explores synesthesia as a condition without having to draw on the small population for whom it naturally occurs. This sort of research is at the heart of what’s exciting about VR — innovation and exploration complementing the development of VR games to create practical applications that help us all understand one another better.

Outside of academia there are even more examples. Viscira, a digital marketing firm specializing in life sciences, has developed a VR headset that enables caregivers and doctors to experience both the audio and visual effects of schizophrenia. This aids the development of empathy for those who try the VR, and seeks to communicate the continued care those with schizophrenia need from their friends and family. Some surgeries are even being live-streamed in VR to make research and skill-sharing more accessible around the world.

All these examples from all these different fields suggest that further investment from industries hoping to capitalize on the inclusivity of VR could lead to more empathetic and powerful technology. If developers consider accessibility from the start, it may soon be possible for everyone to experience a much broader view of the world. As VR games developer Kayla Kinnunen said at VRDC last year, “We’re creating universes, we can give people superpowers, and have more control in these environments. I see no better medium in which we can innovate to make experiences more accessible.”

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