“Immersive Technology has a big problem and it isn’t adoption. Accessibility for all in XR application design is a challenge that many developers are ignoring, this needs to change.”
In 2017, I ordered my first virtual reality headset – the HTC Vive. It was delivered to my office, and when it arrived, I excitedly went down the rows of cubicles to show off this marvel of VR technology. The problem, though, was that nobody there knew what VR was. After that experience, I made a personal goal to put everyone I could inside of VR, even my 92-year-old grandfather. As a game design student with a degree in anthropology and a passion for immersive technology, I constantly think about the barriers we as a society will need to overcome before the mass adoption of VR and AR will be possible. New technologies, no matter how ubiquitous they eventually become, always face these kinds of challenges, and I hoped to grease the wheels in some small way by introducing my friends and family to my passion.
That November, I was standing in my office, helping my friend put on my Vive headset. As one of my closest friends for over a decade, I was anxious to see her reaction (and hopefully wonder) at being in VR for the first time. I slid the straps over her head, put the controllers in her hands, and waited for her exclamations of joy. She looked around, waved the controllers in the air, and then stopped.
“I can’t reach anything,” she told me hesitantly.
Assuming I must have made a mistake during the setup process, I took the headset off and placed it on my own head. I immediately realized that the player height was set for me rather than for her. I put the headset back on her head, guided her through the game’s initial calibration process (which measures height and arm span based off of the location of the headset and controllers in 3D space), and waited again. This time, it seemed as if things were working properly.
The game, Raw Data, tasks you with defeating enemy robots with a variety of weapons. One of the first weapons you’re presented with is a semi-automatic pistol, which is strapped to your hip. To pull it out of its holster, the player reaches down to their hip and squeezes the side buttons on the controller, mimicking a grabbing movement.
To reload, the player uses their offhand to pull ammo from their other hip, and slides it into the slot on the bottom of the gun. Guiding my friend to the games practice area, I explained this process and started the training sequence. Not only did she struggle with squeezing the side buttons on the controllers, but again she was unable to properly reach the areas necessary to grab the gun and ammo. Frustrated, I mirrored her view to my computer monitor and finally understood what the underlying problem was: both the Vive controllers and the game’s player calibration settings weren’t designed for a person with dwarfism.
The video feed from her camera showed her repeatedly trying in vain to reach her holster. Unable to reconcile the height-to-arm-span proportions of her particular type of dwarfism, the game had adjusted the avatar in a way that made it unusable for her: the avatar’s holster and ammo clips were so low that the physical office floor prevented her from reaching them. In this instance, it wasn’t just one aspect that had failed her; it was a combination of both the hardware and the design of the game that barred her access to the experience.
Up until this point in history, technology has required minimal physical interaction to access, in the form of typing, clicking, or tapping/swiping. That being said, many with alternative accessibility needs still find using a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen cumbersome or simply impossible. Immersive technologies multiply the physical component of that interaction substantially, often requiring coordinated full-body movements.
When it comes to using these interfaces, standing for long periods, wearing a heavy headset, and holding large controllers all stand as immediate barriers to entry for many users. With the current AR headsets, functionality like hand tracking could be unstable or unusable for many, such as those with prosthetic limbs or limb paralysis. Looking at the software running on these platforms, the chances that content will be inaccessible rises again. Audio clarity, text size and contrast, button layout options, movement requirements, and countless other factors all collectively contribute to whether an application is going to be an accessible and comfortable experience for the user.
In combination with the usability design of the hardware, these factors collectively fall under user interface (UI) and, more broadly, user experience (UX) design. These areas of design draw from psychology, anthropology, anatomy, colour theory, and many other bodies of knowledge to shape a user’s interaction with a product. If you’ve ever visited a website with illegible text or walked up a flight of steps that were too deep for a natural gate, you’ve glimpsed what poor UX/UI design feels like from a user’s perspective, and what those with alternative accessibility needs face with many everyday products and interfaces.
Many people assume that others requiring accommodations and/or assistive technologies are able to plan ahead and make do for themselves. After all, we don’t generally go about our days worrying whether or not someone will be able to climb the staircase we’re walking up or type on the office’s standard issue keyboard. Those assumptions are a direct result of the inherent privilege of having products and spaces being designed for you. This line of thinking relegates the onus of obtaining access to the individuals affected, often inflicting a significant financial burden and further marginalizing a group that already struggles with how they are treated and portrayed in today’s world. What’s more, it’s even easier to assume that the broader population won’t need or benefit from the changes made in an attempt to broaden access. The Curb-Cut Effect puts the lie to everything underlying these assumptions.
The Curb-Cut Effect refers to the benefits seen by the general population when accessibility is prioritized. It’s impossible to predict every way in which a person might interact with a particular piece of infrastructure or consumer product, but by incorporating accessibility into the planning and production phases of their design, the end result becomes more usable to everyone.
Did the original designers of (literal) curb cuts predict their usefulness for UPS drivers delivering heavy packages or people pushing strollers? Probably not, but their existence allows everyone to access them without the designer having to predict the many ways in which they may be useful. Speaking to many of my female friends in the immersive tech space, I have heard similar complaints about the Vive’s side buttons being hard to reach for smaller hands. As someone with arthritis, I’ve often had to stop playing VR games that require you to be standing when it became too painful to do so. These examples demonstrate that accessibility-minded changes can affect a much larger part of a product’s market demographic than might be assumed. As Gamasutra wrote in their recent article about the UI/UX talks at the 2019 Game Developer’s Conference, “No matter how great your game is, people won’t play it if it’s a pain to approach, learn, and play.”
The lessons learned from the Curb-Cut Effect are invaluable for the future of immersive technologies. By prioritizing accessibility in this generation of VR and AR, developers can ensure that these design principles are firmly rooted in the medium going forward. But how do we go about making it a priority? As developers, we know that there is always a wishlist of unfulfilled designs, features, and options that never see the light of day. We balance the ideal product against time and budget constraints, understanding that a less than ideal product will always earn more than one that failed to reach the market.
This is a business after all, and companies need to be profitable in order to keep their doors open. Consider the following ways in which accessibility can become a valuable part of your design process:
- When planning a project, keep all of the end users in mind. Certain immersive hardware companies caught flak when their headset seemed to only fit close- cropped men’s hair, leading to questions about who the design was tested on versus who it was designed for. Don’t just ask your friends to test your products. Make sure you or your QA team are bringing in candidates who reflect the broad swath of users who may use your product. Additionally, work to include multi-faceted diversity in the testing groups, considering everything from gender, ethnicity, ability, socio-economic background, and other forms of identity, as all of these factors come with their own unique accessibility concerns. Chances are, your product will already have a focused customer base, and there’s no reason to limit that base further by not testing it on a variety of people.
- Ensure that there are diverse voices at the table. By diversifying the ideas and feedback contributing to your project, you increase the chances that your design will have the broadest appeal possible. Not only has this been shown to be a more profitable business model, it also instills consumer trust when they see their demographic represented in the company they’re buying from.
- At every stage of planning and production, ask whether accessibility has been considered. Once accessibility has been discussed, don’t consider that box checked. Continually include it in your conversations to ensure that new ideas receive the same scrutiny as older ones did. Especially in the game development cycle of patches, updates, and DLC’s, keeping accessibility at the forefront of planning is crucial.
- Check assumptions at the door. The old adage about assumptions still rings true. For example, don’t assume that someone with limited use of their hands won’t be playing your game or using your hardware (and therefore don’t need to be considered for your product’s design). Microsoft’s recent push for adaptive controllers demonstrates the interest everyone has in enjoying quality products and content.
- Share your knowledge and resources. Given the ever-evolving nature of technology, it’s important that you share your knowledge with the community. We advance together or not at all, and you contribute to the overall health of the industry by sharing what you know. These insights are often nuanced and come with a great deal of trial and error, and that information is extremely valuable to others facing the same challenges.
- Don’t limit what accessibility you provide by overgeneralizing. Accessibility within the context of this industry is completely relative to the product you’re creating. For example, if you’re working on a rhythm-based game, you will need to consider a completely different and unique set of circumstances that won’t factor into the design of a passive 360 video experience. Try and understand the unique needs of consumers rather than checking your product against a generic list.
- Be an advocate. The most important thing you can do for your product and company is to be an advocate for accessibility, both internally and externally. That means listening when people provide feedback, and echoing that feedback to others in the broader industry. Erin Hawley, the self-dubbed Geeky Gimp, wrote a fantastic piece asking VR developers to not leave disabled people behind. This is a potential consumer who took the time to give feedback and leverage her platform to help advocate for change. Give these voices the time and attention they deserve, and make sure that your peers do as well.
By implementing this inclusive approach to design, accessibility no longer becomes a design choice needing justification, but rather an integral pillar that supports your product’s and company’s success. Whether it comes down to increasing your audience base, making the customer’s experience more pleasant, or giving your product a competitive edge, adding accessible options will only elevate the quality of your final product and your reputation as a business.
Thankfully, with many of the major VR and AR hardware developers launching the next iteration of their headsets this year, some promising improvements have been made. Valve’s knuckle controllers strap to the user’s hands and are extremely light. Both the Oculus Quest and HTC Cosmos controllers feature a smaller grip and a more centralized button pad that seem to work well for smaller hands. Microsoft’s second mixed reality headset, the HoloLens 2 (which is currently aimed at the commercial and industrial markets), features eye tracking, hand scanning, and voice recognition, all of which have fantastic applications for increasing accessibility. I’m hopeful that software developers will utilize these new tools for their applications as they design for these platforms, cohesively creating a more open and accessible ecosystem.
Access to technology and information is directly linked to an individual’s ability to succeed and flourish in modern society, and hardware and software developers alike play a vital role in providing that access. VR and AR will bring about a cultural revolution as impactful as the internet and the cell phone, and we are obligated to ensure that nobody is left behind. By increasing accessibility, we increase the chances that all members of our society are treated equitably, and shape a future based on inclusion and representation.