Designing XR for Accessibility and Inclusion

Accessibility Challenges 

XR can empower those with disabilities to communicate and engage more effectively with others in a remote, immersive environment. These technologies can potentially meet the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities. But issues such as hardware access, network connectivity, weight of the device vs strength of the user, and systems user experience all need to be assessed in order to deliver on an optimally accessible experience. Organizing and understanding the environment being set up for collaboration can optimize the XR experience for all users. This includes object location, creation, orientation and placement. Building the space, laying out the terrain, and using grids with relative positioning are all considerations of designing for accessibility.

While features - such as enhancing spatial sound volume from one side of the body over the other, foveated rendering that highlights sharp contrasts for visually-impaired users, and enabling those confined to a wheelchair to walk around a virtual boardroom table - all potentially enhance accessibility, the heavy emphasis on motion controls, use of your body to control the experience, and sometimes requiring the user to be in a certain position (e.g., standing) all pose potential accessibility challenges that should be acknowledged and addressed where appropriate. Research is being done in both software and hardware (for example, Microsoft’s SeeingVR, Canetroller and Project Tokyo) to find ways to address accessibility in XR, and more advances in this area are to be expected in the near future.  Products from innovative companies such as UltraLeap promise to provide mid-air haptic interactions that could morph into a new language tool.

Microsoft's SeeingVR

Introducing XR collaboration into the process of remote communication accepts and welcomes everyone into the space, and through supportive XR collaboration tools, everyone is empowered, bridging remote collaboration regardless of accessibility limitations.

Further information on this topic can be found here: “Accessibility, Disabilities, and Virtual Reality Solutions.”

Planning for Accessibility Needs 

Accessible products and services are those that can be used by anyone, including those with disabilities. Devoting time and effort to making XR hardware, platforms, and content accessible not only ensures that everyone is able to participate in these collaborative experiences, but can also lead to innovations that advance enjoyment and engagement for everyone. For instance, designing features that help people with permanent hearing loss participate in XR collaborations will also be useful to people with ear infections, or those working from noisy spaces. 

Accessibility also makes good business sense. Over 1 in 4 adults in the US have some type of disability according to the CDC, and many potential clients in healthcare, education, and other industries are legally obligated to ensure that the technologies they purchase are accessible. Accessible products are a competitive advantage you won’t regret investing in.

Below are some high-level recommendations to consider when thinking about accessibility.

  • Involve people with disabilities. Are people with disabilities included as members of your organization, as managers, designers, and testers? Can you hire a disability or access consultant to review your procedures? Designing with people with disabilities rather than at them is the first step toward creating inclusive experiences. The disability advocates’ motto of "nothing about us without us" is something that we can all take to heart. 
  • Consider accessibility from the beginning. It’s easier and more cost-effective to keep accessibility in mind at the beginning of an XR design or implementation process and incorporate it as you go than it is to re-think a purchase or retrofit a tool later.
  • Take responsibility for accessibility. When it comes to deciding whether or not accessibility is a priority, XR designers and users - both with and without disabilities - have a lot of power. We can collectively demand accessible features from service providers and push for inclusion in our own work. We should all take responsibility for advocating for accessibility in our products, our industries, and in wider standards and policies. A great place to start is by getting involved with initiatives like Global Accessibility Awareness Day.
  • Look to existing guidelines. Designing accessible XR tools and planning accessible XR collaborations can seem intimidating. Clear guidelines are available from groups like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit also provides actionable advice on understanding disability, accessibility, and inclusion. In addition, you can find a full list of resources at the XR Access Initiative’s website.

Virtual reality meets physical therapy
Via Jesper Aggergaard (@aggergakker), Unsplash

Ready to pick an accessible platform for collaboration? Below are some considerations that can help you make inclusive choices. 

  • Hardware. What kind of hardware is needed to access the environment? Does collaboration require a VR headset, or can users collaborate via a desktop computer or mobile device? Make sure that the platform you choose allows access from multiple types of devices, and that no users are shut out because a certain type of device is not available to them. 
  • Navigation & Interfaces. How easily understandable is the XR environment? Platform interfaces should be clearly labeled and explained, but should not overwhelm users with options and floating menus. Navigation through an interface, or through the XR environment itself, shouldn’t be something that makes collaboration more difficult. 
  • Communication. How is speech and body language communicated in the XR environment? For those who aren’t able to hear, is captioning available? For those who can’t see text, is text-to-speech available? Tools for conversation, messaging, and other forms of engagement are all vital for collaboration and should be usable by everyone.
  • Customization & Interoperability. Allowing users to customize an XR environment to their needs can go a long way toward making it accessible. And keep in mind that many people use other types of software to make online or connected experiences accessible, so XR collaboration tools should be interoperable with these as well.
  • Avatars & Embodiment. Avatars are a great way to help collaborators feel present and engaged in a virtual space. However, they can’t always represent the full range of human diversity. Do avatar options allow those who would like their disabilities to be visible to do so? Finally, avatars can help enhance collaboration when they enable nonverbal communication. Make sure that your environment allows those who can’t see or hear to interpret these nonverbal cues.
  • Test it yourself! Can you use your application without sound? Without sight? One-handed? No-handed? Seated? Standing? Try it, and see where you can push for accessibility improvements.

XR collaboration can be an engaging and productive experience, but for many, the lack of accessibility features means that it’s more limiting than empowering. Understanding the need for accessibility helps us advocate for hardware, software, and content that enables everyone to participate to their fullest potential. 

Happy child in virtual reality
Via Insung Yoon (@insungyoon), Unsplash

Consideration of those with disabilities has so far not been standard in development of XR hardware and experiences. In fact, assumptions about who will be using XR has largely been restricted to a relatively small group, leaving out the needs of those who do not fit neatly within it. In order for XR to be welcoming and easy to use for all - and to reach its full potential as the next computing platform - multiple perspectives, bodies, and levels of ability must be at the foundation of design.

Designing for accessibility and inclusion applies to all aspects of what is needed for a person to experience XR, from the hardware with which they access it to the multiple interaction points that makes participation in a virtual world possible.

Research is currently being applied to elaborate these concepts in the immersive design process of the worlds in our ecosystem with bodies and abilities that are different from the presumed standard.

Inclusive Design

Products, experiences, drugs, and procedures are often designed for tested with a limited range of the diversity of human types. This can have real consequences, such as when crash test dummies are modeled solely on men, leaving women out of consideration in safety testing. The result can be deadly: in head-on crashes, women are 73% more likely to be injured than a man in the same car, and as of 2019, there were no crash test dummies available that represent women, according to Consumer Reports. While those of us in the XR industry may immediately think there could be a virtual solution to this problem, the fact is that XR hardware is similarly modeled on the male body.

Microsoft took 3D scans of the heads of 600 people who varied by age, gender, and race when redesigning its HoloLens for version 2 in order to optimize comfort for more people, as reported in this article published in Fast Company. But such practice is rare, and some people are put off from using XR because it is simply uncomfortable.

XR headsets are not always friendly to some types of hair or hairstyles, making it awkward and potentially embarrassing for some people to use them. Shannon Putman, a doctoral candidate in Education at the University of Louisville, is attempting to address this problem by empowering young women at a local academy to come up with designs that make HMDs more friendly for them. Grassroots efforts like this can inspire and inform others about the needs of actual users and lead to more inclusive design by HMD manufacturers.