Thoughts on Accessibility Issues with VR
“In partnership with Lucasfilm ILMxLAB, the Disability Visibility Project™ is conducting an online survey for people with disabilities about VR (virtual reality).” I filled out their survey here at https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2017/01/03/vr/, and I encourage anyone that can fill this survey out to please do so. One survey question asked about major accessibility issues with VR. I wrote a long answer to this question and also realized I’ve never talked about VR accessibility online, despite having many thoughts on the subject. So, I’ll share my response to Lucasfilm and ILMxLAB below! Hit me up @ONLYUSEmeFEET on twitter if you’d like to discuss VR accessibility in more detail!
To be completely honest, I don’t believe Virtual Reality is an accessible platform as it currently exists. Virtual Reality technology is complicated and therefore, makes global accessibility suggestions difficult. However, as a game developer and accessibility specialist, it is a topic I ponder often. Here are some of my suggestions for making Virtual Reality more accessible:
1) The heavy emphasis on motion controls. There’s so many motion controllers coming out for VR and an emphasis on using your body to control the experience. I’ve seen traditional games with VR components lock out traditional control methods when a VR headset is being used. This isn’t right! I should always be able to use a gamepad coupled with a VR headset, especially games that’d normally support a gamepad otherwise. There are very few experiences that I would say absolutely require motion controls to be fun. I was excluded from playing some Wii games due to motion controls, but VR seems to be excluding me from many games because of them.
2) VR headsets requiring the user to be in a certain position to play. There are some VR experiences I could play with motion controls, but because they require the user to be standing, I can’t play at all. This has been a silly barrier for me trying to access on-rails experiences, as I can play them on console fine! Virtua Cop on my Saturn doesn’t require me to stand in order to use the Stunner Gun. Outside of Time Crisis Arcade requiring foot pedals, I can’t think of any on-rails shooter that requires the user to be in a certain position. And even Time Crisis had a button on the GunCon that could be remapped to the cover action allowing me to play the console ports.
3) Games and hardware being locked to certain manufacturers. What makes solving problems with virtual reality accessibility difficult is the fact that there’s multiple kinds of headsets in production, each with their own games and hardware. Most suggestions I make for accessibility might work fine for one kind of headset but be impossible on another. I’m still fighting for consoles to allow for full button remapping on standard game controllers, but the fight for all the input types for VR hardware to be accessible is a different beast. I appreciate software creators making their software accessible but the hardware also has to do its part.
4) This issue actually has little to do with software development but it’s a significant issue I believe needs to be solved if VR is to become as accessible as it can be. I’m able to use a VR headset fine, but someone has to help me put it on and take it off. I seldom use VR because I don’t want to be tethered into my computer unable to escape without help. I can’t just drive off in my wheelchair with my head attached to a headset plugged in my computer! What if there’s a fire or my headset freezes and nobody is around, I could potentially be staring at a bright white void for hours or even die! For me to use VR by myself often, headsets would have to be wireless and also have a way for me to see through the headset to navigate the real world. I also would like to see VR headsets handle exceptions better and not hang on bright static images when they freeze. An on-board way to reboot the headset automatically would stop me from worrying about this issue.
5) I believe there should be a distinction made between virtual reality and video games. Inaccessibility in virtual reality is partially due to the fact that many VR games are forcing game mechanics on their users. Like Trials of Tatooine, for example. Why should I be forced to play games in Tatooine? I’d like the option to be able to put on my headset and just experience the planet without the requirement of playing minigames. I don’t believe all virtual reality experiences need to provide challenge to be fun or immersive. One trapping we have in accessibility in games is that games need to have some sort of challenge to remain fun. Games with multiplayer or leaderboard components also need to be fair for all players so you need to keep balance in mind. Virtual reality experiences shouldn’t feel the need to adhere to this requirement. Also, if Virtual Reality dropped the need for traditional game mechanics, I think they could be a lot more immersive than they are now.
6) This doesn’t apply to the VR Star Wars games much because Skywalker Sound does incredible work, but Virtual Reality experiences need better audio than they currently have. Most audio in entertainment isn’t sufficient for the kind of immersive audio Virtual Reality games need to give me feedback on the environment around me. It takes me a little while longer than most to turn my head so in a horror game, for example, I can’t always be checking behind to see if I’m being chased. That’s tiring! Great audio design should tell me my surroundings without forcing me to look everywhere at all times. And if Virtual Reality is to provide the most immersive experiences out there, the audio has to have at least as much care as the graphics. Many VR experiences I see on Steam have terrible audio that isn’t fit for the medium. Great audio could also help people hard of seeing be included.
7) Ultimately, get people with disabilities to help create and test your experiences before you ship them! Most developers think only of able-bodied players when pre-planning their VR experience. Because accessibility wasn’t thought or considered in pre-production, nobody on the team considers the thought until after the product shipped. And at that point, is that developer really going to go back and add in accessibility features? Getting people with disabilities to test, or even better, help create, the VR experience throughout multiple stages of development would ensure it would be accessible to a wide range of players. 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.
These are suggestions I have that will make virtual reality experiences more accessible. VR has been my biggest challenge yet in terms of accessibility, but I believe the medium can be accessible if work towards that notion starts now. As always, I’m more than ready to help make that happen.