What the Future of Virtual Reality Means for Accessibility

June 23, 2020

Virtual reality (VR) and its cousin augmented reality (AR) have passed from science fiction to reality. Although the adoption of VR and AR is still limited (but growing fast), the potential applications are nearly endless: gaming and entertainment, healthcare, tourism, architecture and construction, and many more.

Proponents of virtual reality argue that it’s a democratizing technology, offering people new worlds and experiences. But with the VR market forecasted to grow rapidly in the near future, will people with disabilities be able to come along for the ride? What does the expected growth of VR mean for accessibility?

What Does the Future of VR Hold?

Most industry analysts agree that the future looks bright for VR. Last year, the intelligence firm IDC projected that global spending on VR and AR would skyrocket to $18.8 billion in 2020, nearly doubling from $10.5 billion in 2019. What’s more, IDC estimates that the VR industry will grow by an average rate of 77 percent annually until 2023.

There are a wide variety of VR use cases, from real estate to manufacturing. For example, marketing experts have suggested 13 ways that VR can transform the field of marketing alone, including:

  • Building VR advertising experiences that promote a particular product.
  • Allowing potential customers to “try before they buy”: for example, trying on an item of clothing, or placing a virtual piece of furniture in their living room.
  • Serving as a new storytelling medium for digital creatives.

IDC predicts that in 2023, the three biggest commercial use cases of VR will be employee training, industrial maintenance, and retail showcases. Consumer use of VR and AR will also become more widespread, with annual spending of $20.8 billion in 2023.

How Virtual Reality Can Enhance Accessibility

Developments in virtual reality are arriving at a time when disabilities and accessibility are also becoming more conspicuous topics of conversation.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 4 U.S. adults has a disability, which equates to 61 million people. Disabilities are particularly common among adults aged 65 and older, and the proportion of this population has been steadily increasing: from 12 percent in 2000 to an estimated 21 percent in 2030.

The good news is that in many cases, virtual reality can enhance the experience of people with disabilities by offering alternative forms of interaction. By including immersive cues across a wide range of senses, VR developers can enable users with disabilities to enjoy the world of virtual reality just as much as—if not more than—they enjoy the real world.

Visual disabilities

Many VR users with low vision have described how using VR often enables them to see more clearly than in reality:

  • Alex Lee describes his experience playing the L.A. Noire video game in virtual reality after losing his central vision: “I could actually see more in this 1940s virtual world than in other games. More than that, I could see more in VR than I could in real life.”
  • VR enabled Jamie Soar, who has the hereditary disorder retinitis pigmentosa, to counteract some of the disease’s effects, making his vision “closer to normal than he had experienced in decades.”
  • Jesse Anderson, a gamer who is legally blind, runs the IllegallySighted YouTube channel that showcases many VR games and experiences.

Ophthalmology professor Gary Rubin and optometrist Michael Crossland suggest several reasons why people with low vision can often see better in virtual reality:

  • VR goggles are very close to the eyes, which means that the VR scene is magnified by filling the user’s field of vision.
  • VR devices have a feature known as automatic gain control, which helps keep the device contrast at a constant level.
  • VR games and experiences often use bold, bright images, colors, and text.

Even for users with total blindness, VR still has a great deal to offer. For example, many people without sight still enjoy playing video games through the use of audio and haptic feedback. The gamer SightlessKombat, an accessibility consultant who is legally blind, was able to rise to the top rank of “Killer” in the fighting video game Killer Instinct simply by listening to the various sounds and noises that characters make during a round of combat.

Motor disabilities

VR gives users the chance to explore new worlds and try new experiences, which may be especially meaningful for people with motor disabilities. In particular, VR environments can allow people with motor disabilities to virtually overcome certain physical limitations.

Danny Kurtzman, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, spoke about his feeling of elation after trying out a surfing experience in VR: “It gave me that awesome feeling—that butterfly happiness feeling. It allowed me to experience something I thought I never could experience.”

VR also has the potential to help people with motor disabilities in physical rehabilitation programs. Scientists have shown how simply imagining an activity stimulates the motor cortex, the part of the brain used for voluntary movements. The Swiss neurotechnology startup MindMaze has raised $100 million in funding to develop VR goggles for people who have suffered brain injuries. By using these goggles, the hope is that patients’ brains can be “tricked” into believing that a paralyzed body part is moving, helping to accelerate the recovery process.

Finally, VR can serve as a virtual “training ground” for people with motor disabilities. For example, people who have started using a wheelchair can use VR to practice navigation in challenging environments, such as a busy street or narrow sidewalk, or to plan accessible routes in advance.

Cognitive disabilities

A growing body of evidence has shown that virtual reality can be part of an effective therapy regimen for people with certain cognitive disabilities:

  • A review of studies suggests that VR treatments can help increase patients’ memory skills and cognition: for example, recovering prospective memory for stroke patients, or improving the cooking skills of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • A 2019 study published in the journal Autism in Adulthood documented how VR environments, used together with cognitive behavioral therapy, can help reduce phobias and anxiety among people on the autism spectrum.
  • VR environments can act as a safe space for people with social difficulties, such as some people with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, to practice social situations in a non-threatening environment.

Accessibility Challenges with Virtual Reality

Despite the potential that virtual reality holds for users with disabilities, it also presents new barriers and challenges. Below, we’ll discuss the problems that VR may create for people with different types of disabilities.

Visual disabilities

While VR can help enhance the quality of life for many people with visual disabilities, every person is unique—and what works well for one user may be an obstacle for the next. In particular, VR that magnifies the image can make things worse for people with tunnel vision or poor peripheral vision.

According to ophthalmology professor Gary Rubin: “Magnification for people with tunnel vision can be a bad thing. They only have a small area they can see through, and if you magnify it, you see less of the subject.”

VR environments may also not enable certain actions that users with low vision depend on: for example, being able to increase the size of text in the VR environment, or increase the contrast between the text and the background.

Hearing disabilities

There are several potential issues that people with hearing disabilities face when in VR environments:

  • Many VR games and experiences depend on audio cues that may be missed by people with hearing disabilities.
  • Real-time voice chat is often an integral part of VR, which can cause users with hearing disabilities to be at a disadvantage or feel excluded.
  • Existing VR technology doesn’t allow users to completely replicate the motions of sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL). For example, VR systems aren’t able to detect the separation of fingers that’s needed to form letters such as W and V in ASL. In response to these challenges, VR users who speak ASL have documented how sign language is evolving in VR to account for these limitations.

Motor disabilities

Many VR games and experiences make assumptions about a user’s mobility or motor skills that inadvertently exclude people with motor disabilities:

  • Some VR environments require certain head or body movements, or require extremely precise motions, that are difficult or impossible for users with motor disabilities to perform. This problem is compounded by the fact that many VR environments don’t allow the use of alternative input devices such as gamepads or motion controllers.
  • Users with motor disabilities may need extra time to perform certain tasks that have a time limit.
  • VR head-mounted displays, which are worn in front of the face, may be too heavy for some people with neuromuscular disorders to wear in the first place.

Conclusion

Virtual reality environments offer a great deal of potential for users with disabilities, but they also present hidden obstacles. Letting people with disabilities customize the VR environment, including the use of alternative input controls, will go a long way in removing these barriers and improving their experiences.

As VR becomes more and more prominent in the near future, developers should take into account the needs and opinions of people with disabilities, including making them part of the development process, in order to build games and experiences that are truly accessible to a wide range of users.

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