Can we make virtual reality really accessible?

Note: This post is older than two years. It may still be totally valid, but things change and technology moves fast. Code based posts may be especially prone to changes...

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Virtual Reality is quite exciting and should be more accessible also for people with disabilities. But what has to be done to make it more accessible. I try to scratch the surface of the subject and reflect on some possibilities that come to my mind after some limited experience with my VR headset.

To answer this question we must first define what really accessible is. For me it means that content can be perceived, operable, understandable and robust for as many people as possible. So it’s about people and also a bit about devices that people use.

Devices like virtual reality glasses are quite excluding as only sighted people can use them as they were designed. Partially sighted people can probably zoom in quite a lot but we are at once met with a problem – VR glasses do not support a lot of zoom. There are some optical solutions but they add to the complexity and are maybe not viable for all glasses. On the other hand – those same glasses are totally unusable for deaf and blind people as they are pretty much unusable for people without sight.

Deaf people can probably use captions and similar texting and same VR glasses are quite accessible for them.

People with physical disabilities can also experience exclusion, depends on the type of disability and some can use glasses with software adjustments as well. VR headsets can be too heavy, hand tracking not possible, controllers too complex or too heavy by themselves, position of the body that adds to stress or even pain and so on.

People with intellectual disabilities can be excluded as well, depending on individual difficulties and capacity. Software can be quickly very complex too and due to it’s innovative nature it can add to barriers even more than software in two-dimensional space.

What has to be done to improve accessibility of virtual reality

We need more research and testing and the virtual reality devices also need to be more accessible in the financial sense. The technology is pretty young but still not on the bleeding edge and I detect that there are quite some initiatives out there that try to make the virtual and augmented reality more accessible.

A lot can also be done from hardware manufacturers:

  • spacial sound systems that can add spatial orientation,
  • different play areas (guardians) supporting also other usages, for example adjustable angles for people in beds,
  • adding support for physical zoom and allowing use with larger glasses,
  • customized optics to support different users better,
  • body support to make wearing of glasses easier on the person,
  • different manual controls that can be modular and personalized,
  • three dimensional haptics that can add to 3D experience,
  • Braille and similar interfaces that support three dimensions,
  • brain-computer interfaces that add whole another level of interaction when they will be safe enough.

And there are also possibilities for software improvements that can add to better accessibility:

  • Integrated voice assistants,
  • support for visual interpretation,
  • customizable captions,
  • high contrast modes and dark modes,
  • eye tracking,
  • software zoom,
  • software that supports simple means of moving, like teleportation,
  • pausing and possibility to adjust speed of actions when needed,
  • reduced motion settings and similar user preferences.

I’ve just scratched the surface and as mentioned we all need more experience, testing and studies on the matter, but there are already some quite viable solutions that can widen the user spectrum drastically.

It will be interesting what will also be defined in legislation for the market, as for example European Accessibility Act but at first we need to have decent Accessibility Guidelines that take Virtual Reality into account.

Author: Bogdan Cerovac

I am IAAP certified Web Accessibility Specialist (from 2020) and was Google certified Mobile Web Specialist.

Work as digital agency co-owner web developer and accessibility lead.

Sole entrepreneur behind IDEA-lab Cerovac (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility lab) after work. Check out my Accessibility Services if you want me to help your with digital accessibility.

Also head of the expert council at Institute for Digital Accessibility A11Y.si (in Slovenian).

Living and working in Norway (🇳🇴), originally from Slovenia (🇸🇮), loves exploring the globe (🌐).

Nurturing the web from 1999, this blog from 2019.

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