The Disability Visibility Project recently published a report that highlights the accessibility issues relating to VR users with disabilities. This follows a survey created by Disability Visibility Project founder Alice Wong in partnership with Lucasfilm’s ILMxLab, which covered user experiences, accessibility issues, and ideas about VR for people with disabilities.
79 VR users with disabilities from around the world participated in the survey, offering insights into their experiences with VR technology. Of the 98 different types of disabilities described, the most common were deafness, arthritis, scoliosis, cerebral palsy, autism, asthma and PTSD. ILMxLAB helped to promote the survey, and users’ experiences with their VR game Trials on Tatooine (2016) was an optional section.
The report offers six key takeaways from the survey: accessibility should be integrated into VR software from the start, VR software/hardware needs maximum flexibility and customisation, developers should interrogate cultural norms and diversify representation, be sensitive to the diverse and varied communities and disability types, and VR development teams should hire disabled people. A large portion of the report sheds light on the specific challenges that disabled users face when using VR hardware and software.
Barriers to Use
6-DOF headsets (of which 79% of participants use) are generally more problematic as developers take advantage of the positional tracking, which often follows an expectation that the user can move more freely in a wide space. 3-DOF headsets (used by 63% of participants) have their own problems too, such as the fixed menus using small text. In terms of VR activities, the most common difficulties are balancing while standing, crouching, standing, physical locomotion, and raising/extending/moving arms. Other difficulties that received several mentions include holding/gripping objects, sensitivity to light, seeing, moving fingers, thinking, remembering, or concentrating, and sensitivity to flashing lights or visual patterns.
The report offers many choice quotes from participants, who describe their difficulties in more detail. For example, in relation to balancing while standing, one user writes “I’m unable to stand to use VR. I need to be seated with the backrest at just the right incline, and with the right padding / firmness. I’ve only ever found 2 seats that don’t increase my pain, and currently the one that works best is my wheelchair, which obviously doesn’t swivel like an office chair, so as well as being unable to stand, I’m unable to physically rotate, which is fairly frustrating and impacts the majority of the VR experiences I try.”
“The Vive is hard to use because I have to hold the controllers and push my wheelchair around at the same time,” says one user in relation to VR locomotion challenges. “Hard to turn. Easy to bump into walls even with chaperone because my radius is wider.”
One user firstly noted some positives to VR imaging: “VR allows me to see far clearer than I do with my natural eyesight, giving me far more detail in both objects in the distance as well as holding objects up close. I also experience depth perception in VR, where normally I have diplopia (Double Vision).” But they go on to describe issues with light sensitivity. “One area I do have difficulty with is if the screen suddenly goes very bright, I can be dazzled and lose focus, another being small text, or text that is tracked in the centre of my view.”
Some participants appear to be unable to use VR at all, fearful of visual triggers. “I’m afraid to try and risk a migraine. I already have to avoid various media with strobe lights, flashing effects and too much blurring.”
“I am sensitive to loud noises and flashing lights/images,” says another participant. “I am not interested in VR because I won’t be able to predict or control these features. I also cannot use shared headsets/gear because of the chance I could be contaminated by gluten or allergy triggers.”
For others, the challenge is in hardware setup, requiring assistance to wear a headset. “My cerebral palsy makes it impossible for me to take my device out of the case… therefore I can’t participate in VR without assistance. I would like to be able to set it up by myself, because I often have episodes of anxiety, depression, and pain while I am alone. I use VR to treat those things.”
Certain issues highlighted in the report are also relevant to the wider VR user base, such as potential motion sickness, and cable management. Some existing problems will naturally improve as the technology advances; for instance, the difficulties in reading text due to the low resolution, and being able to communicate via gestures will dramatically improve as motion controllers and hand tracking evolves, but others require more consideration from developers to make their experiences more accessible and customisable.
One user asks for alternative button mapping to be a default feature across the board, as it would be “so much easier for the disabled gamer to choose the option of which button is suitable for them to play that particular game”, and another requests the option for alternatives to motion controls: “I’ve seen traditional games with VR components lock out traditional control methods when a VR headset is being used. This isn’t right! I should always be able to use a gamepad coupled with a VR headset to play games, especially games that’d normally support a VR headset.”
There are requests to pay more attention to text and captioning, in terms of their appearance and flexibility. “Tactile objects like clipboards, whiteboards, and posters that can be moved are great because we’re able to find the right place to stand and look at it. If a text box floats right in front of us wherever we look, forcing us to cross our eyes, and can’t move closer, we won’t be able to read it.”
Several statements discuss accommodating the seated user. “Remember that we exist,” writes one participant. “We share this space with able bodied people and as it stands it’s very difficult for us to use this new experience without a lot of pain or even at all.”
“Make height adjustments available and movements such as bending and crouching optional,” suggests another. “Right now I have to take off my headset and put it to the ground to bend down and watch a screen to see what I’m doing.”
Another participant offers a different view: “Games are very hostile to people with any kind of motor disability. However I am not asking for games to be tailored for me or people like me. Get the market as wide as you can as fast as you can and someone will make products I can use without damaging the potential of VR. Having said that, I would not be opposed to a disabled setting that allowed people to play from a more limited field of view and sitting.”
Many users with restricted movement request more options in terms of locomotion, button inputs and motion controls; visual and hearing impaired users request more specific options for graphics and audio; software flexibility is key. With so many possible considerations, an important suggestion is to involve people with disabilities from the start of the process, or at the very least as part of the testing phase. “Ultimately, get people with disabilities to help create and test your experiences before you ship them!” writes one user. “Surveys are helpful to the cause, but until you get people with disabilities creating and testing VR experiences, there’s only so much data can do to help.”
Potential for Enrichment
While the participants lament the many hardware and software challenges relating to disabilities, the report also highlighted the positivity and excitement about VR’s potential to enrich lives and enable otherwise impossible experiences.
“I’m excited by the illusion of traveling free of the confinement of my body. This would hold true of anyone, with and without a disability. But VR opens up the possibility of being able to walk in the woods and feel surrounded by trees and the sounds of the forest.”
Another user sees VR as a great equaliser, writing “I can do things in VR, like drive a car that I can no longer safely do in real life. And, like healthy people, I can do and see things in VR that I could never do in real life.”
“I think VR for people with disabilities has tremendous potential in almost all areas of life. I think it has incredible educational and recreational potential and I also think it has the ability to provide life simulation activities that could encourage more personal development and growth in a fun way. I think VR experiences of all kinds should be available to people with disabilities and that there are specific things like driving simulators and life simulation experiences that could be of real benefit to the disability community.”