Virtual reality (VR) has come a long way very quickly in recent years, but neither VR hardware nor VR software is great for people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments—whether long-term, temporary, or situational. However, even given the limitations of current technologies, we can still make our experiences far more accessible than most VR experiences are. In this article, you’ll learn several design considerations, tools, and resources that will help you incorporate accessibility into your VR eLearning experiences.
We can provide better features, mechanics, and interface options for people with varying mobility. For example, we can provide the option to adjust the avatar Point-of-View height for shorter people or people in wheelchairs, perhaps even giving visitors the option to choose an avatar in a wheelchair. We must also weigh the importance and necessity of physical movement through any given eLearning experience and decide how much movement is actually required as a game mechanic. Perhaps we can instead incorporate avatar movement without requiring people to physically move, such as seated options that don’t require people to stand up and locomotion and navigation techniques such as teleportation or tracking visitor gaze. Further, we can give visitors the option to gesture beyond hand movements. We can even limit or eliminate the required use of hand controllers so people with no hands or one hand can still interact with the experience.
Designing for these extreme use cases will help all visitors. For example, avatar locomotion through teleportation not only makes the experience more accessible, it also dramatically reduces the likelihood of nausea induced by the motion sickness that’s so common in VR.
Auditory and visual considerations
A combination of audio, voice, and visual cues can be provided as options for a visitor to select for a VR eLearning experience. For example, closed captioning is one way to offer audio-free navigation through an experience. In VR, this means allowing visitors to toggle on captions that follow your gaze. That is, the captions will always be in a fixed location in a visitor’s virtual Field of View (FOV).
The audio itself also needs to be improved in VR. With enhanced immersive audio, visitors can more easily determine their location and that of potential obstacles. Voice commands can be used to answer prompts or advance a particular module in lieu of actions requiring hand controllers. We can incorporate detailed audio cues and haptic feedback through hand controllers, gloves, clothing, or Subpacs to provide additional sensory information to the visitor and guide them. We can label colors when necessary to support color blind people. Better still, we can provide the option to use a modified version of the experience on mobile devices or laptops for people who find these easier to use than VR headsets. Further, calming sounds can be included as a feature that visitors can turn on, which can reduce anxiety for people with autism. Again, all these options potentially make VR experiences better for everyone.
In addition to designing these features, we can also give instructions and option menus for how people with various impairments can still participate in the experience. We can provide alternatives for how visitors can adapt the experience to their needs, such as optional audio narration, different colors that vibrate you differently in haptic devices, or avatars in flying wheelchairs. Remember, the VR eLearning experience isn’t required to meet the physical limitations of the real world.
Finally, we can have people with different impairments complete full user tests of your VR experiences and provide detailed feedback. Then we can incorporate their suggestions before going live, and ideally complete accessibility beta tests repeatedly throughout the development process. Better still, we can build a diverse development team that includes people with different mobility and sensory abilities.
Design tools and resources
The goal of VR is to build experiences that go beyond what’s possible in the real world. This means that we have the creative tools to make the new world or space accessible for all users. One approach is to provide capability for opting into accessible features. Visitors can toggle them on or off like we already do with closed captioning. We can also use VR’s unique nonlinear design characteristics in an effort to create more accessible experiences.
Our previous article on extreme design provides some best practices for incorporating accessibility into your VR eLearning experience. Microsoft is possibly doing more work in the area of VR accessibility than anyone. They have an Ability team comprised of researchers working on inventive inclusive design solutions. The Microsoft Ability team also wrote a research paper with additional best practices for designing accessible VR experiences.
Here are a few other resources and tools:
- Creating Accessible eLearning: Practitioner Perspectives
- Inclusive Design by Microsoft
- Canetroller by Microsoft
- SeeingVR: A Set of Tools to Make Virtual Reality More Accessible to People with Low Vision
- Near Sighted VR Augmented Aid
- Aira, providing visual information on demand
- Valuable essay with suggestions for improving accessibility in VR
There’s a lot of talk about accessible design in VR but not a lot of action. For all the rapid evolution of VR technologies in recent years, the medium is not very accessible. Fortunately, we have the power to change this. We can design our VR eLearning experiences to be more accessible for all, despite the limitations inherent in modern VR hardware and software. And if enough of us design for better accessibility, this will have the added benefit of pushing VR forward into becoming a more inclusive and accessible medium for everyone. How are you and your team designing and building more accessible VR eLearning experiences?