Virtual Reality Accessibility

There's a lot of information out there about designing the web for accessibility. Over the last 10 years, the world has learned a lot about how to accommodate a vast diversity of different needs and abilities.

So, when it comes to designing virtual experiences, we don't need to start from scratch. Here's a few things you should consider from a VR Accessibility point of view.

Seated-first design

Like responsive web design, which accounts for the screen size of the user, VR experiences should be responsive to height and posture. Consider audiences who use wheelchairs, are unable to stand for long, or are short (including children).

  • Don't place buttons or interactive elements in hard to reach positions
  • Ensure that NPC eye-gaze includes height, not just direction
  • Include locomotion options which can be done from a seated position

Audio cues

VR experiences shouldn't rely solely on audio cues to grab a user's attention, or require audio in order to complete a task. Not only does this allow your experience to be accessible by hearing impaired people, it also let's users play on mute if they want to.

  • Provide a subtitles option for speech
  • Provide visual indicators where positional audio is used
  • Provide visual cues for success or failure events (e.g. failure to start an engine should be visible as well as audible)

Readability

Current hardware resolutions make it difficult enough to discern text as it is. But as the resolution of VR headsets increases, don't be tempted to reduce font sizes to match resolution. Consider users with a vision impairment that may not be able to make out small text.

  • Recommended font size is 3.45°, or a height of 6.04cm from the distance of one meter
  • The text should be faced perpendicularly to the observer, and rotate around the observer's view
  • Use a line length of 20—40 symbols per line. With bigger fonts, lines should be shorter.

More information on fonts in VR can be found in Volodymyr Kurbatov's article.

Colour

Color blindness or color vision deficiency (CVD) affects around 1 in 12 men and 1 in 200 women worldwide. This means that for every 100 users that visit your website or app, up to 8 people could actually experience the content much differently that you’d expect.

http://blog.usabilla.com/how-to-design-for-color-blindness/

Virtual worlds tend to be visually rich, which often means a much broader range of colour than one would typically see on a website, or even in the real world. With this in mind, strive to ensure that colour isn't used a the only way of displaying contrast.

  • Choose a variety of textures to provide better contrast between visual elements
  • Use both colours and symbols in interface design
  • Avoid "bad" colour combos (e.g. Green + Red, or Blue + Purple) for primary elements

VR is still in it's infancy – we're still learning about what works and what doesn't. As the industry grows, it's important to continue prioritising accessibility, so that our virtual stories, games, environments, and tools can be explored by everyone.

The Next Tech Revolution

When the internet was popularised, the world started asking questions about topics like freedom of access to information, the nature of "digital goods" / "digital ownership", and globalisation.

Now that we're on the cusp of the next technology revolution, I'm excited about more compelling questions entering the zeitgeist.

Virtual Reality is currently being pushed forward by a gaming market (like computing once was). But it won't be long (2019, 2020) before consumer VR starts making its way into every home. All we need is:

  • Standalone headsets (no computer required, coming 2018—2019)
  • Faster wireless communication (5G, coming 2020—2021)
  • Cloud rendering (2018—2019)

Once VR has become popularised, the global conversation will shift to focus on some very interesting questions. What is the nature of reality? Do quantum mechanics prove that we're already living in a simulation? Is consciousness emergent from biology, or something deeper? Does "self" even exist?

At the same time, I hope we see this technology creating new social dynamics, forming new partnerships and friendships, in ways that flat screen communication has never been capable of. 

I don't think we'll recognise the world 5 years from now.


Postscript: One of my earliest VR experiences was sitting in AltSpace and meeting a Rabbi. We discussed the future Halakha (Jewish law) of VR for hours. Is flying around Google Earth considering "travelling" on the Sabbath? Should my avatar wear a kippah? Is my avatar Jewish? Is it permitted to eat virtual pork? These are questions that will have real authoritative answers in the near future.

Tangible and Social

In our ultra-connected, hi-fidelity world, the vinyl trend seems out of place. What drives interest in such an outdated format?

I’ve just spent the last 20 minutes poking through vinyls in a record store.

Despite modern music streaming services like Spotify and iTunes, vinyl record sales are booming, reaching $11.5 billion in 2015. That’s almost double what they made in 2013.

In our ultra-connected, hi-fidelity world, the vinyl trend seems out of place. What’s driving the interest in such an outdated format?

I believe there are two reasons: Vinyl is tactile, and vinyl is social.

There’s something visceral about holding the large square of cardboard, smelling the musky scent of old plastic, feeling the grooves in the wax. This tactile sensation is becoming rarer as the world becomes more digital.

No social media experience can compare to a group of friends choosing a record, and sitting together to hear it. Yesterday I lay on the floor with my son listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. We could have done the same with Spotify, but never would have. Vinyl brings people into the same room – another social sensation which is becoming rarer.

What would it look like if we took these two principles (perhaps we could even call them basic needs?) and applied them to our product?

Mailchimp giveaway a toy mascot (Freddie) to their devoted user base. Unique and interesting swag is one way of making your web-app more tangible. How could you literally get your software in the hands of your users?

Gimlet Media host events where people can meet the hosts of their podcasts in person. Conference booths, launch parties, and training days can all bring your users together into the same room. How could you literally bring your product’s community together?

Getting Serious

Serious products have a very clear purpose. The player is moved along a narrative from Point A to Point B.

Have you ever played a “Serious Game”? The term refers to a video game which has been designed for a purpose other than entertainment.

Some of the “serious” games I’ve played explore themes like depression, ageing, innovation, empathy, and of course, education. Serious matters.

Serious games have a very clear purpose, and every single element of the game is designed to achieve this purpose. For example, if the goal is for a player to recognise the warning signs of occupational burnout, interactions will revolve around long-hours, anxiety, and sleep. The player is moved along a narrative from Point A to Point B.

We can use this same approach to create a user-flow “narrative” in our Products. What are our “serious” objectives? Who are our players, and where is their Point A and Point B?

A Smile, and Nod

Creating community within our Products doesn’t need to be a fully fledged social chat. All you need is a smile.

One of my favourite ways to start the day is with a quick dip in the surf.

Every morning I’m on the beach I see the same people. We don’t really talk much, nothing more than a smile and a knowing nod, but seeing them there helps me feel like I’m part of a small community of early-morning beachgoers.

Likewise, creating communities for our Products doesn’t need to be a fully fledged forum or social chat. All it needs is a smile and a nod.

This might take the form of a high score list, featuring profile pictures in appropriate places, or simple emoji reactions.

How can you enable your users to cross paths?

Create a Café Culture

The secret to a great cup of coffee isn’t the tamp, the pressure, or the timing. It’s community.

I love coffee, and I adore my barista, Silas. He is a world championship winning barista, and runs one of the most celebrated boutique cafés in Australia.

Silas knows the secret to a great cup of coffee. He knows that it’s about more than the tamp, the pressure, the timing, or the latte art. The secret ingredient is community.

What makes Silas’ coffee so good isn’t the coffee itself, but the conversations that happen around every sip. Everything inside his café is setup just for you: So you can be inspired, laugh with friends, and create treasured memories.

Because what matters isn’t the product itself, but the experience that the product creates.

How can we create a cafe culture within our products?

What would a community sprint, rather than a development sprint, look like?

What if our people came for the community, instead of the product?

The Illusion of Choice

I love a good card trick. We can apply the illusion of choice to user interactions within our Product.

I love a good card trick.

In one of my favourite trick endings, I’ll lay 6 cards out on the table, facedown. I secretly know the position of your chosen card. Then I’ll ask you to point to 3 of the cards.

If your card is one of the 3 you pointed at, I’ll take away the three you didn’t choose, letting you assume I was asking you which cards to keep. Otherwise, I’ll do the opposite, letting you assume I was asking you which cards to remove.

Repeat this step by pointing at 2 cards, and then again (if required) for the very last card. In the end, you feel like you’ve chosen exactly which card was left on the table.

We can apply this illusion of choice to the user interactions within our Product. We often see this when an app asks us for our review, either “Now”, or “Later”.

This can be implemented in any number of ways to influence the behaviour of our customers.

We just updated our platform with a new feature! Would you like a guided tour of the changes?

We had a problem processing your payment.

We received your request for a quote, but we need more information.

What user behaviour would you like to change? How can you use the illusion of choice, to help them make that change?