Virtual reality - a state of play

Posted on 05 October 2016 by

Virtual reality technologies are growing in popularity across the world – yet how can these developments be experienced for people with disability? Occupational therapist David Harraway from Yooralla’s ComTEC service explores the future of this technology and how it can become an accessible and enjoyable experience for people with disability.

Virtual reality (VR) and other computer-generated alternative realities, also known as augmented and mixed, is a technology that is starting to create interest in the community. The potential to be able to leave your body behind and immerse oneself in a unique sensory experience, just by donning a headset and headphones, explains some of this interest. However, for some people living with  disability, VR may offer an accessible means of exploring and participating on a new and different “level playing field”. Imagine being able to experience the freedom of a bird in flight, take a tour of some place you’ve always wanted to visit but couldn’t afford to, or meetup with friends from around the world, all while sitting in a wheelchair in your home! Researchers are also discovering new ways to use VR in rehabilitation and are developing tools for pain, anxiety management and training of movement.  The experience of immersion in the VR world can actually be so complete that the person’s sense of their physical body can change.

As with almost every mainstream technology innovation of the last few years, it is often gamers and game development that lead the way; but VR is already about a whole lot more than just eliminating hordes of menacing aliens! Google, one of the largest tech companies in the world, has invested many billions of dollars in VR research and development in the past few years. In 2014 they trialled Cardboard, which was a new way for developers to create content for VR using very inexpensive 3D headsets that worked with an Android phone This led to a wave of content such as virtual travel, art installations, productivity or collaboration, interactive educational experiences (many schools received free packs of Cardboard viewers), and, of course, games. Facebook, Apple, and many others also have teams working hard in this space.

I was fortunate to recently attend the Australian Assistive Technology Conference on the Gold Coast and present a snapshot of VR developments in my capacity as an Occupational Therapist at Yooralla’s ComTEC service. A key aspect of our job is working with customers and their support teams to determine how they may best access the technology under consideration. This may be a device to assist with communication, where the session would be led by one of our highly experienced Alternative and Augmentative Communication Speech Pathologists, but it might also be exploring the use of a computer, phone or tablet. While we haven’t yet taken any calls from someone looking at VR, I suspect that day is coming soon!  

What might it take for a person with a disability to have a good experience with VR?

There are a number of considerations to reflect on to ensure VR is an accessible and enjoyable experience for people with disability.

For example, people using VR need to be able to tolerate wearing a headset and headphones. Most VR headsets look and feel similar to ski goggles, although some lighter models, and “see-through” augmented reality glasses, are definitely coming soon - all of the big tech companies have investments in this future.

Additionally, the person typically needs to have sufficient vision to be able to look at objects on the screen in order to interact with them. I say typically because there have been some sound-only VR experiences made by developers for people who do not have functional vision. For those that can see well enough to get around easily in VR, one exciting development is the emergence of gaze based selection. This means that the person only has to look and hold the object or icon (also known as a “glyph”) to indicate their intended choice - which can sometimes be easier than pressing a button or working a joystick on a game-pad.

The person might need to be able to read well enough in order to follow prompts that they are offered by the virtual world, which usually happens when a choice needs to be made. However, many games and experiences are completely non-language based; for example YouTube 360 is an entire channel devoted to VR viewable content so reading would not be a barrier to someone using those.

Finally, and this is a big one, the person would need to have enough movement of their head or a way to simulate that, via a spinning office or wheelchair for example, and not get motion sickness from the movement required, which tends to spoil the fun. In my experience the only way to know this is to try.

How can you try VR for yourself?

One way is to buy a Cardboard Viewer which costs approximately $10-$50  and slot your Android or iPhone into it. From there, you simply download a few apps and you’re good to go.  Another way might be to keep an eye on places like the State Museum and National Gallery sites as they sometimes have exhibitions where you can experience  high end VR such as Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Samsung who sell the Gear VR, a mid-range option that works with their later model phones and tablets, have stores at Melbourne Central and Highpoint or this can also be experienced at some electronic retailers.

VR technology is still in an emerging phase. Unfortunately, as with anything new, some users with disability have not had their expectations met. This is in part due to some of the basic requirements I mentioned previously not being achieved; but also arises out of a lack of proper accessibility standards in this area. What can be done to make VR better for people with disability while we all wait for regulations to catch up? It’s up to us and the broader community to tell developers when something isn’t doing what we need it to. We can also band together online and share ideas. For example, when the recent mobile game Pokemon Go was found to be inaccessible for users with difficulties with dexterity, someone in the community designed and made a 3D-printed keyguard to help guide their fingers during a part of the game that was tricky for them to get around. The University of Melbourne has also compiled a list of ways in which VR can be made more accessible to people with disability so the conversation has already started.

Some VR resources to explore

  • Fove Eye Play the Piano
    This VR system uses eye control to allow the young man to play at his school concert. Watch it in action in a YouTube video.
  • Facebook Social VR demonstration
    This YouTube video shows some of the various tools that will be possible to share and interact.
  • VRSE preview
    See a series of snippets from VRSE studio, some 360 video documentaries, some 3D computer generated art experiences in this YouTube video.
  • ‘Why Virtual Reality Could Be A Game Changer for the Disabled’

Read a thought piece on The Arc from Applause website about the potential significance of VR gaming by people with disability.

  • YouTube 360
    Explore are now thousands of 3D videos on YouTube 360.

Learn more about communication and assistive technology at Yooralla.


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