Virtual Reality: New Technology, New Challenges

Virtual Reality, otherwise known as VR, promises truly immersive experiences for players. Games like “Job Simulator” allow gamers to experience different occupations, albeit in a humorous manner, while “Eagle Flight” lets you see Paris like you never have before: through the eyes of a soaring eagle. Such possibilities make VR technology the next exciting frontier in gaming, but without consideration for those with disabilities, VR will remain inaccessible to a segment of gamers.

VR gaming shares some of the same accessibility issues as its traditional gaming counterpart, but others are unique to the VR experience. Sole reliance on audio, visual, or color-based cues remain a problem in VR for those with auditory, visual, or color deficiency disabilities respectively. What is unique to VR, however, is its reliance on motion and interaction with objects in a 3D space.

Unlike traditional gaming, reliance on motion requires more solutions than supporting button remapping or alternative controllers. In a session at VRDC 2016, Tomorrow Today Labs’ Brian Van Buren discussed how being in a wheelchair affected his ability to interact with objects placed at heights designed to be reached by average-height adults when standing. In a similar vein, he explained, VR games that require turning one’s body while using controllers proved problematic as holding the controllers reduced his ability to turn his wheelchair.

Given its possible applications in rehabilitation, VR’s accessibility issues are troublesome. However, as more and more studios embrace designing with accessibility in mind, VR can be made open to a wider audience. Some possible solutions studios are exploring to increase the accessibility of VR are: scaling virtual rooms down to reduce the amount of space one needs to play; extending the reach of arms in VR environments to allow players to interact with objects placed at farther distances; and lowering the height of the play area. Team mindKraft from the Fusehack hackathon in Amsterdam are even exploring ways to navigate in a VR environment by using brainwaves transmitted through an EEG headset.

Not only is designing accessibly important for disabled people, it also provides an opportunity for children and the elderly to get in the game. Furthermore, by creating VR experiences with accessibility in mind, developers can create stronger, more efficient, and more elegant gameplay overall. With all these benefits in mind, it is encouraging to see studios, players, and leaders in the gaming community embrace accessible design. The Disability Visibility Project, in partnership with Lucasfilm ILMxLAB, recently conducted a survey about VR for people with disabilities. Their results will be presented at VRDC 2017 and we are interested to see the feedback they have gathered from the community.

New technology presents new challenges and it is important that VR developers address them head on. VR has opened up entire worlds of possibility, many of which have been no more than fantasy until now, and excluding those from its audience that could stand to benefit most is a sad, frustrating, unacceptable irony. As AbleGamers founder Mark Barlet said in an interview with the Application Resource Center, “Virtual reality will have a special meaning for disabled people. It means that for moments in time they can forget their disabilities and be immersed in the game.”