AR & VR are poised to make technology dramatically more accessible for users with disabilities

Humans have had to physically adapt to major shifts in communication for millennia. Eyeglasses were used for reading manuscripts in limited fashion beginning in the 14th century. The printing press and then typewriters put new pressures on the human wrist. And of course, Smartphones have brought their own changes.

Tech Presents Unique Accessibility Challenges & Solutions

Each of the subsequent shifts has created new opportunities and challenges for people with disabilities. Even in the early ’90s, major OEMs already had robust accessibility programs underway. Those programs championed the advancement of assistive technology and devices like screen readers, screen magnifiers, tactile keyboards, hearing aids and more.

Headset, glasses, and goggle manufacturers will build upon those same programs and best practices for Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality HMDs. Many of the same large OEMs like Microsoft, Samsung, Google, Apple, Asus, and others are designing and manufacturing those devices. They will be responsible for the application stores so accessibility considerations will be factored in based on previous decades of design experience and support.

Accessible Design Becomes the Legal Standard

More recently in 2010, the Department of Justice published the Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design. These standards require that all electronic and information technology are accessible to people with disabilities. Thousands of websites currently fail to adhere to these standards. AR and VR (XR) application developers will need to factor in the same considerations and work with compliance experts to ensure their applications adhere to the most current standard. XR is rapidly developing and currently a much more fragmented landscape than mobile or web. Therefore, expect device support and capabilities to evolve rapidly.

VR & AR Design Require Early-Stage Accessibility Planning

Accessibility is best factored in during the UX design stage. Be sure to work with an expert in compliance to ensure your application meets the existing standards. Developers waste a great deal of time and money building in accessibility support as an afterthought. The costs become even more significant if action is required after a lawsuit.

Beyond just compliance with existing assistive technology, it is worth taking a moment to consider what additional capabilities may evolve due to the new technologies encompassed by XR. Expect XR to be more than just the next platform beyond mobile. AI, wearables, and 5G will all play a major part in the XR ecosystem. Those adjacent technologies will provide greater capabilities for people with disabilities. Let’s look at a few examples.

  1. A. Augmented and Virtual Reality Approaches to Help with Peripheral Vision Loss. A 2017 paper presented at the 14th International Multi-Conference on Systems, Signals and Devices outlines an assistive solution for peripheral vision loss. The AR approach shows mini-displays within the user’s impaired field of view that include scenes from the missing visual field. This is coupled with an auditory system of alerts to indicate to the user when danger may lurk outside their primary field of view. The VR version of this system is similar but reproduces the entire visual field within a headset.
  2. B. Computer-corrected vision. A mobile solution, once the application controlling your future AR glasses knows your prescription for corrective vision, the glasses themselves can modify inputs in ways traditional corrective lenses would not. The same method applied to foveated rendering, whereby processing power is reserved just for where the user is looking, can be applied to enhance or significantly improve anything in (or outside of) the user’s field of view. This solution being developed by researchers at MIT and the University of California - Berkeley automatically corrects people’s vision defects without glasses.
  3. C. Help blind people navigate. This paper describes efforts using computer vision and image processing to extract scene knowledge from a scene and assign voices to objects in the room. It helps with, “obstacle avoidance, scene understanding, formation and recall of spatial memories, and navigation.”

There will be major changes over the next 3-7 years as new AR and VR devices find widespread market adoption. The same compliance issues exist for these new platforms as do physical spaces and websites. While large OEMs manufacturing most devices will factor accessibility into devices and application stores, it will be up to individual developers to factor accessibility into their applications. Be sure to start the conversation during the design stage and work with an expert.

kid wearing VR goggles
man using virtual reality headset