VR: An Altered Reality for Disabled Players

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Rebeccah Redden is a Kitchener-based filmmaker, writer, and science fiction nerd. She spends most of her day living with mental illness and helping kids do 3D printing and virtual reality. She enjoys having an opinion on everything and reminiscing about getting free PC games from cereal boxes. bio-blog

Wait…The library has VR?

My job is spent instructing customers on how to fly through a city and to make sure they don’t lean on virtual furniture and fall. I work at a public library that, like a rising number of libraries, has a Virtual Reality station. While you’re getting your books, you can play a 20 minute session on the HTC Vive, choosing from games like Fruit Ninja and Job Simulator. This attracts all types who visit the library; folks experiencing homelessness, little kids, teenagers looking for escape, and the elderly. It’s a really cool thing to make accessible, considering VR is often inaccessible to purchase.

I’ve helped many different people use VR in the public space and I often wonder if it can ever be truly accessible to everyone. I’ve noticed that most of our players present as able-bodied. Some patrons lament that they would love to try VR, but they have motion sickness or epilepsy. I’ve had to tell guests they need to consult a doctor before they play, which is a disappointment for everyone. Patron experiences are further described by Adrienne Hunter of Tomorrow Today Labs: “People who have some kind of physical limitation in real life will struggle with assumptions that the user is able-bodied, to the point where certain VR experiences are impossible.”

Since many games offered through VR require full body movement, would guests in wheelchairs or with limited mobility be able to play? If you had one arm, would you be able to use just one controller? Are these games even fun and enjoyable for people with vision impairments or hearing loss? I personally can’t even play VR with my glasses on. Who are we leaving behind when we make a new technology accessible?

It doesn’t take much to imagine which bodies VR is made for and which ones are left out of the action. The future of VR, and the VR public station, treads a fine line. As Steven Spohn, COO of the AbleGamers charity, states:“Virtual reality has some amazing potential, but it also has the ability to crush the souls of those people hoping for new virtual lives” (qtd. in Caddy). If we’re not careful and attentive, we run the risk of leaving behind people in the virtual revolution. A fun virtual reality experience should not require an unimpaired sense of motion and balance. It should not require a height level. VR should not have an implication that the user is able-bodied. This isn’t a revolutionary concept. Disabled gamers and games advocates have been asking for changes for decades, so the information exists. Public VR stations have the tools to find new ways to make VR experiences accessible to everyone.

With this in mind, I will gather the experiences and ideas of accessibility advocates who are working to inform VR’s trajectory. I will be providing my own perspective of the VR station and its access. By putting existing ideas and experiences together, I hope to promote the work that folks with disabilities are already doing in advising (and designing) games themselves, and the role of the public VR station in advocating and creating better VR.

 

The Struggle

In December 2016, the Disability Visibility Project® and Lucasfilm ILMxLAB launched The VR Accessibility survey for people with disabilities (Wong et al). The goal of this survey was to better understand the accessibility issues in VR and to collect recommendations by participants based on their experiences (3). In the illuminating document, 79 diverse players discussed the adjustments they needed to enjoy VR.

For example, multiple users in the study talked about the difficulties of using a power chair and having to push it around at the same time (13). They also outlined how difficult it is to use without full arm mobility (13, 16) and how the headsets aren’t always compatible with hearing aids (16). Respondents discussed having seizures induced by cognitive stress and overload (15). Visually impaired users expressed how small fonts negatively impacted their experiences, especially when they try to move closer to the object in question, and it vanishes from view. VR is also ignorant of how color use creates a difficult experience for color blind players (14-15). This is not an exhaustive list of issues.

The Disability Visibility survey revealed that the most common issues in VR are the lack of ability to override or customize interfaces, motion tracking, player dexterity or accessibility options. Hardware lacks flexibility and is incompatible with assistive tech (Wong et al, 2). Outside of the survey, other designers/gamers echo similar sentiments. A.J. Ryan, accessibility specialist and game developer, criticizes games that cross over to VR and completely lock out the use of other hardware: “I should always be able to use a gamepad coupled with a VR headset, especially games that’d normally support a gamepad otherwise” (“Thoughts”). Being able to use a diverse range of hardware helps people with different mobility to use the product. This is a widespread problem that designers aren’t taking into account.

Jesse Anderson, better known as Illegally Sighted on YouTube, is a visually impaired game access advocate who outlines adjustments that could be made to VR that would help visually impaired players.  He suggests that designers implement head tracking from the start to close of the application, larger text, customizable settings before the game starts, and eliminating or circumventing quick time events (“An Illegally Sighted Look”). The absence of customizable options, in both hardware and software, is a serious problem in VR, where players who need to change certain aspects of gameplay are left in the lurch.

Another game element we take for granted is motion tracking standards. Cameras and software track your movement, your height, and your relation to other objects. I’ve seen this play out when smaller kids play Job Simulator and are unable to use certain game mechanics. The optics recognition software is designed with ‘average’ able bodied folks in mind. Adrienne Hunter elaborates that “if the optics software was designed to expect you to have four limbs clearly visible, or to be standing, your user experience sucks” (Hunter). This information suggests that if you don’t fit what the ‘standard’ VR player is expected to be, or what the hardware/software is designed for, your freedom and enjoyment is limited.

Current VR standards are making it increasingly difficult for disabled gamers to enjoy their experience: “As a disabled gamer, I get kind of worried about VR. I can’t walk around, I have a hard time moving my arms. Are people like me going to be left behind when this moves forward?” (Johanna Roberts, qtd in Hamilton). VR is designed and implemented in a way that assumes the user is able-bodied, which means frustration, pain, and disappointment if you’re not. If VR doesn’t change, it will continue to be non-inclusive, inaccessible, and isolate people from a cultural experience.

 

Solutions

Gamers have taken matters into their own hands and started creating their own augmented technology. A few examples are 3D printed lens holders for prescription lenses, using PC magnifiers, and increasing the sensitivity of head tracking so it’s less painful to wear (Wang et al, 14-18). People have also built customized foot pedals, modded arcade joysticks, used voice recognition software, and even set up tumble mats to prevent falls (17). However, I believe gamers shouldn’t have to change their own hardware in order to experience a good game. This should be implemented right at the get-go by development teams and the resources exist to move that forward.

Accessibility specialist Ian Hamilton has built online resources for game developers. In these resources he outlines how developers can combat common accessibility issues right at the start of design, using the experiences of disabled gamers and advocates to support his suggestions. For example, one user discusses their  experience with motion sickness: “[g]ames that have two types of movement going on at once, such as head bob…and weapon bob…make me sick every single time” (Eric Qualls, qtd in Hamilton). Hamilton then points out techniques for developers, like decreasing motion blur and reducing peripheral vision during motion. He also adds links to work already being done in game design (“VR accessibility”). By following these suggestions and immersing themselves in the experiences currently out there, developers can use this to build more accessible games. The key is actually listening.

Alongside independent reviewers like Hamilton, Ryan and Andersen, more companies are working towards the mainstream promotion of access. Today Tomorrow Labs tackles accessibility in VR development through public advocacy and their own game design. The AbleGamers charity focuses on connecting disabled folks with games, equipment, and game development consulting. Reviewers such as DAGER Systems assess popular and indie games for their accessibility to disabled players and also do consultations, providing a public forum for discussion. It’s through the hard labour of disabled gamers and public advocates that word is spreading to the mainstream.

There are a few companies listening to critiques and creating accessible games;  Triangular Pixels is one of them. Their game, Unseen Diplomacy, requires players to crouch and crawl through the game. They added a restricted movement mode, which allows players to augment height/controller levels and to even take out levels completely. They also add varied cues for players — allowing symbols, colors and sounds to indicate level aspects and instruction (Goode). This at least gives players options for various kinds of interaction.

EA’s Madden NFL 17 added colourblind filters and contrast settings (Goode). Other EA games like SimCity did the same (Wilde). The Disability Visibility Project® and Lucasfilm ILMxLAB were partially meant to research VR issues for their game Trials of Tatooine (Wong et al, 3). As Hamilton outlines: “There are lots of VR developers thinking seriously about accessibility….that kind of involvement really wasn’t there at the early stages of gesture interfaces, or the early stages of touch interfaces. So the fact that it is here now for VR does seem hopeful” (Hamilton).

Implementing accessibility from the beginning is vastly important. Since VR is so new and the standards aren’t permanent, we have an opportunity to infuse it with accessibility measures early in the development process (“An Illegally Sighted Look”). A.J. Ryan advocates for a more hands-on approach: “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” (Ryan). Therefore, development teams should be challenging themselves to implement accessibility right away. They should also be promoting and hiring disabled designers and testers. It’s much easier to design accessible games when the designers are already thinking about and experiencing accessibility needs.

 

The VR Station

If accessibility options and measures are best implemented during the design stage, then where does this leave the public VR station? As Shannon Garcia states, “The ultimate success of VR social environments as accessible public spaces is going to be highly dependent on the degree to which developers take responsibility for shaping the culture and ethics of the shared spaces they create” (qtd in Caddy). We can interpret the VR social environment as its emergence into the public real. As facilitators of VR, we have a responsibility to shape the culture and ethics of our point of service. After discussions with accessibility specialists A.J. Ryan and Ian Hamilton, I outline two connected pathways from here.

The first is augmenting hardware and software.  If we want to provide a fun, non-compromised experience, we need to think beyond the technology we’re being given. Ryan says we should “include games with traditional controller support, as well as a way for gamers to bring in custom controllers to play with…the overhead on this wouldn’t be easy, but I’m sure the community could come up with something” (Redden). Hamilton suggests offering a wide range of VR content, from seated experiences to customizable ones or those with simple controls, to immersive experiences, etc. This will allow for people to customize their experiences. The community’s role in providing a multiplicity of options for hardware and software is of the utmost importance to increasing game accessibility.

VR facilitators can train ourselves on hardware hacks and software mods. The best software option we have is WalkinVR. This driver lets gamers lay in bed while playing, use one limb, and “allows the user to rest their arms in a comfortable position, then emulates the proper positioning for them” (Kraft). I can see this helping patrons have independence about their needs pre-game.

The second role the VR public space can have is advocacy. We can, as Hamilton outlines, allow people a way to try VR risk-free. Some people–especially those with accessibility needs — “may have assumed VR is not for them but discover it actually is” (Hamilton). We can create an opportunity for them to try it. Secondly, we have a powerful opportunity to  collect reactions. Hamilton states, “having a high turnover of players means it’s also an effective feedback tool, too. Normally people have to self advocate…but public setups are in a position to build collated feedback and spot patterns”. We have a powerful opportunity to catalogue trends and advocate for better options with developers.

As a public space delivering new tech, we are in a unique position. We can come together to advocate for accessibility patches and development where they are lacking because we can test, see what works, what doesn’t, and demand that developers change. We can take the lead of disabled gamers and advocates to provide better service. This has already helped me in real time: I’ve had patrons with walkers ask detailed questions and I’m actually able to answer truthfully because of the research I’ve done here.

I look forward to a time when VR is totally accessible. As we build new virtual worlds that transcend space, we should always be thinking of the space we take up, how to work with what we have now, and the actions we can make to build better and more accessible tech. We shouldn’t be wasting time on excuses any longer.

 

Work Cited

“An Illegally Sighted Look at VR Accessibility — Jesse Anderson: #ID24 Nov 2017”. Youtube, uploaded by Inclusive Design 24, 16 Nov 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpYH093s3yM. Accessed 1 Jan 2018.

Caddy, Becca. “How Tech Is Making Virtual Reality More Accessible.” TechRadar, 21 Jan 2017, www.techradar.com/news/how-tech-is-making-virtual-reality-more-accessible/2.

Good, Owen S. “Madden NFL 17 Adds Colorblind Filter, Other Accessibility Options”. Polygon, 11 June 2016, www.polygon.com/2016/6/11/11908844/madden-nfl-17-accessibility-options.

Goode, Katie. “VR Games for All – Designing Unseen Diplomacy for Disabled Users” Triangular Pixels, 31 Mar. 2016, www.triangularpixels.net/cms/development/vr-games-for-all-designing-unseen-diplomacy-for-disabled-users/.

Hamilton, Ian. “VR Accessibility.” Ian Hamilton, 31 Oct. 2016, ian-hamilton.com/vr-accessibility/.

Hamilton, Ian and Rebeccah Redden. Personal interview. Email. “VR Accessibility Research.” 8 Jan. 2018.

Hoare, Philip. “Disability and Gaming: the Disabled Gamer’s Manual.” Disability Horizons, 18 Oct 2017, disabilityhorizons.com/2017/10/the-disabled-gamers-manual/.

Hunter, Adrienne. “The User Is Disabled: Solving for Physical Limitations in VR.” VRINFLUX, 20 Dec 2015, www.vrinflux.com/the-user-is-disabled-solving-for-physical-limitations-in-vr/. Internet archive. https://web.archive.org/web/20170923162241/www.vrinflux.com/the-user-is-disabled-solving-for-physical-limitations-in-vr/.

Kraft, Caleb. “Making VR Accessible for People with Physical Disabilities.” Make:, 29 June 2017, makezine.com/2017/06/29/making-vr-accessible-for-people-physical-disabilities/.

Ryan, A.J. “Thoughts on Accessibility Issues with VR.” The AbleGamers Charity, 27 Jan. 2017, www.ablegamers.org/thoughts-on-accessibility-and-vr/.

Ryan, A.J. and Rebeccah Redden. Personal interview. Email. 2 Jan. 2018.

“WalkinVR – The Best Way to Move in SteamVR – Maximize Your Roomscale!” Performance by Daley Tech, Youtube, 20 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1cq5F-TxBs.

Wilde, Tyler. “Why Games Need Color Blind Modes – See SimCity .” PC Gamer, 1 Feb 2013, www.pcgamer.com/why-games-need-color-blind-modes-see-simcity-with-simulated-color-blindness/.

Wong, Alice, et al. “VR Accessibility Survey for People with Disabilities.” The Disability Visibility Project, Disability Visibility Project and ILMxLAB, Jan 2017, disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2017/01/03/vr/.