Accessibility for VR: How to design so blind users are not left out of VR

Summary: Designing for VR must include users with disabilities. If you are working on AR or VR content, the accessibility of your app or piece should be on your radar from design time through to implementation.

Designing for blind users in VR requires using spatial audio using tested 3D sound techniques. At Experience Dynamics, we work on a lot of R&D projects that we end up publishing results to the wider UX/ HCI community. One of these projects is a Disability & VR project called SoundSpace. 

We include this case study/ demo (VIDEO) below of how sound can aid navigation, information finding and social VR.

What’s the problem with VR/AR accessibility?

Users with disabilities are excluded from Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality experiences. To date, not Apple, Occulus Facebook, Google or Microsoft have addressed this issue. [Note: A small start is being made, eg Hololens provides audio prompts for blind users]. Blind users for example, require spatial auditory interfaces, using 3D spatialized sound. To date, no “screen reader” for VR/AR exist. This is an access issue. 

Oculus Go builds sound into it’s hardware design but there are currently no style guides or provisions for accessibility to any current market hardware/software. At some point, Section 508 and the European Accessibility Act will catch up. Are you ready? 

What’s the solution for VR/AR accessibility?

We have been working on a concept called “SoundSpace”.  SoundSpace is a proof-of-concept virtual environment that demonstrates how blind users can participate in virtual reality using tested techniques for navigating spatially within an interaction space and in social or collaborative encounters in immersive virtual reality.

Today’s virtual worlds rely heavily on visual cues, so most of the experience is irrelevant to Blind or visually impaired users. However, research has shown that spatial sound interfaces can help with wayfinding by providing spatialized directional cues. 

The demo above explores the use of spatial audio in 3 scenarios:

1 Navigate to the bookshelf and shared space (sound pulls you toward the target). 

2 Explore the bookshelf with sonification principles (tones vary higher or lower on the shelf)

3 Join a social VR scenario for social collaboration (enter a private shared space and audibly identify a user). 

Note: We did not spend time on graphics because we were testing design options for blind users, for whom graphics are meaningless (as would be wearing a head-mounted display). 

What we learned from this

It is possible to start thinking about and including your users with disabilites early on in your UX prototyping process. The medium of “XR” or VR and AR today are a doorway to a world of visualization and imagination without limits. Without limits means for users with disabilites as well. 

Some tips from our work with Disability and VR and SoundSpace:

  • VR can be made accessible for blind users using spatial audio (standard with Unity audio SDK). 
  • Much can be learned from sound as a navigation aid (it has actually been well researched for virtual environments). 
  • For individuals with disabilities, spatial access is a design necessity. This means 3D sound used artfully for blind users, 3D space used accessibly for mobility impaired users, careful narrative experience and UI ease of use for cognitive impairments, and finally closed-captioning for Deaf and Hard of Hearing users. 
  • Think about your biases before you optimize for your comfort zone, not your users. The 7 Biases involve designers and developers misusing height, dexterity, emotion, sound, movement range…followed by content that is confusing and controls that are too complex.

Get a summary of this work here: Here’s a summary poster (PDF) presented at the Spatial User Interfaces conference in the UK:

VR accessibility Spatial Navigation and Collaboration for Blind users

Learn more about the power of sound; bring us in-house to teach this AR/VR UX training

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