One way to enhance learning and development (L&D) training in virtual reality (VR) is by designing for the extremes, that is, considering the accessibility needs of all potential learners from the initial phases of design. For example, OXO designs popular kitchen products with extreme use cases in mind, such as people with arthritis who have trouble gripping a potato peeler or holding a measuring cup. As a result, OXO products are extremely comfortable and easy to use, and have become popular across all customer segments. This principle can be applied to more than just designing kitchen products. In this article, we explore how to encode accessibility into our designs. We also provide inspiring examples of accessible and inclusive VR experiences and products.
Encoding accessibility into VR products
VR is a new-ish medium that allows us to creatively develop L&D experiences using a nonlinear design framework. A nonlinear design approach gives us the flexibility to incorporate new tools and perspectives, as well as the freedom to create accessible content. Here are several ways we can encode an inclusive culture into VR L&D experiences:
- Build diverse development teams that include people with varying disabilities—as well as other underrepresented minorities such as people of color, LGBTQ+ people, etc. The design process from start to finish will have a range of diverse perspectives for the VR learning experiences. Diverse teams also develop VR L&D experiences by and for people with varying disabilities and incorporate tools that complement the needs of the team.
- Design for constraints that a potential visitor may have. By thinking of constraints (e.g., participants who only have one hand), the learning experience can be enhanced for all participants with voice activation instead of hand controllers only.
- Create learning experiences from the point of view of persons with disabilities. Microsoft Research proposes providing inclusive representations in VR because “it is important that people with disabilities are given the option to choose” how their avatar appears, communicates, and moves in a virtual environment (Mott, Martez, et. al.). In an L&D experience, this may mean a person with a disability chooses to walk around with a cane or wear a hearing aid.
- Familiarize your team with the seven principles of Universal Design as well as Universal Design for Learning (UDL). These principles can be applied to VR experiences.
By encoding accessibility into VR L&D experiences, we can create a world of new experiences and interactions; one that offers brief glimpses into the lives of our fellow humans. Here are a few VR experiences that have explored new perspectives in use and accessibility:
- At least as far back as 1994, researchers have experimented with VR wheelchairs to train mobility-impaired people to control motorized wheelchairs in safe, virtual environments.
- The New York Times published a VR experience op-doc and mobile app called Notes on Blindness: Acoustic Space that allows sighted people to experience what it’s like to be blind.
- Microsoft researchers developed the Canetroller, a haptic cane controller with three types of real-time feedback, that helps people with visual impairments learn to navigate through a virtual world.
- Cydalion, created by Float, is an augmented reality app that helps people with a variety of visual impairments navigate through the real world through use of a phone’s camera and bone conduction headphones.
- In Beethoven’s Fifth, VR director and innovator Jessica Brillhart incorporated haptic subpacs into the musical VR experience. Subpacs are vibrating vests that allow deaf and hard of hearing people to feel sounds on their bodies. The unique and detailed vibrational patterns also add a powerful dimension to experiencing sound for people who can hear. Additionally, multiple companies and researchers are developing other kinds of sensory-substitution devices—such as BrainPort, vOICe, and Samsung’s Theater for All Ears—that substitute one type of sensory input for another. These devices are each a sort of virtual or augmented reality in their own right, and some could potentially be used in conjunction with traditional VR headsets to supplement or even replace the visual or auditory sensory inputs.
- The Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas–Dallas created the Charisma Virtual Social Training program that “provides support to individuals with social challenges and neurodevelopmental differences like ADD/ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and social anxiety.” Here’s an interview with Maria Johnson, a director at the Center for BrainHealth, about this program.
- The Microsoft VR research team has compiled numerous resources and research, including SeeingVR, for making VR more accessible to all people. Microsoft has a dedicated research division, Ability, to encode more accessibility into VR and non-VR designs.
These examples barely scratch the surface of what’s possible with regard to designing more accessible and inclusive VR experiences. When we design for extremes, including every possible participant instead of just the average participant, we make the experience better for everyone. How are you and your team incorporating accessibility into your L&D experiences?
Mott, Martez, Edward Cutrell, Mar Gonzalez Franco, Christian Holz, Eyal Ofek, Richard Stoakley, and Meredith Ringel Morris. “Accessible by Design: An Opportunity for Virtual Reality.” ISMAR 2019 Workshop on Mixed Reality and Accessibility. October 2019. Microsoft Research, Redmond, WA, USA.