Guest Opinion: VR Shouldn't Leave Disabled Gamers Behind

Guest writer Morgan Rehnberg explains why virtual reality may be out of reach for millions of people, and what the industry can do about it.

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My friends are sick of hearing about virtual reality. My family probably is, too. I’d be embarrassed to admit how many virtually-identical videos of people going hands-on with the Vive Pre at CES I’ve consumed. Without question, I’ve spent more hours watching the developers play Fantastic Contraption with the system than I ever did playing the original game itself. My holodeck fantasies, decades in the making, are finally coming true.

Surely, then, I was first in line to preorder the Oculus Rift. Or, perhaps I’m holding out for the aforementioned Vive? I wish I could be that definitive, but instead I’ll be waiting to see if this new realm will be open to people like me.

Since the day I was born, the cells in my eyes have been dying. With each that perishes, I’m robbed of a tiny sliver of my central vision. After more than a quarter century, the result of this inexorable march is that sports scores most can comfortably read from their couch are a struggle even when sitting just a foot or two from my big-screen TV. You’d never notice if you met me on the street, but I live in a world in which all but the largest of text is covered in a smear of Vaseline.

The kicker is, I’m by no means alone. In the last census, more than eight million Americans reported they had trouble seeing. A great many of them number among our nation’s elderly, but legions more face such a hardship for much of their lives. And failing sight is just the tip of the iceberg: nearly one in five US citizens report suffering from some degree of disability.

Despite the decline of my vision, I remain an avid gamer today. You can bet that—eyes six inches from the screen—I’ll spot your proxy pylon or sniper perch. Rarely had the people of Skyrim seen a Dragonborn so dedicated to preserving the realm before I arrived on the scene.

The irony of virtual reality is that the very thing that makes it great might thrust it out of reach for people like me. After all, when you move your head in VR, the screen—and all its tantalizing text—moves with it. There’s no getting closer to get a better view. There’s no moving something to your peripheral to catch a glimpse.

The recent past shows us that this is not an insurmountable problem. A decade ago, the unveiling of the iPhone brought similar consternation. Here was a technology so remarkable that few could doubt it was the future of computing and yet it was all but a black box to the blind. Generations that grew up learning to touch type and find the buttons of a mouse were confronted with a flat, featureless slab of glass. How could they ever hope to interact?

All was not lost. Although computers had developed for decades before efforts at accessibility became serious, smartphones were imagined almost from their inception as tools for everyone. The first major revision to the iPhone, the 3GS, arrived with a breakthrough feature known as VoiceOver. With simple swipes on the touchscreen, the visually-impaired could navigate the entirety of iOS by audio alone.

Today, virtually every app of any quality supports VoiceOver. Text can be enlarged and bolded systemwide. Those with low mobility can navigate by flipping a switch and the hard of hearing can pipe sound directly to their hearing aids. The lesson is unambiguous: focus on inclusivity from the beginning and nearly any disability can be overcome.

Despite eight generations of consoles and decades on the PC, gaming still lags far behind what smartphones have accomplished in just ten years. Only after updating to version 2.5 did the PS4 gain basic features like adjusting the size and face of the system font and remapping the controller’s buttons. Many of these features work only in the system menus, not inside games themselves, and the options offered by the Xbox One are even more limited.

The move to VR is forcing developers to rethink every paradigm in game interaction. What worked in two dimensions might be disorienting or even sickening in three. A mechanic that challenged players with a joystick might bore them with a motion controller. Right now, as we’re building the norms for interacting in new, alternate realities, is the time to think about how to make sure everyone can come along.

We did it with our last transformative technology and we can do it again. Careful consideration can ensure that those who might most wish to escape the real world have that chance the same as anyone else. Virtual reality is the future of gaming; let’s not leave anyone behind.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    January 26, 2016 11:00 AM

    Morgan Rehnberg posted a new article, Guest Opinion: VR Shouldn't Leave Disabled Gamers Behind

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      January 26, 2016 11:19 AM

      Thanks for your contribution to our site!

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      January 26, 2016 4:01 PM

      So, I've got one blind eye, how's the VR experience going to stack up for me?

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        January 26, 2016 4:08 PM

        Supposedly still impressive according to other people on Reddit who are blind on one eye.

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        January 26, 2016 4:29 PM

        I suspect the motion tracked controllers and head tracking are still awesome. Stereoscopy is overrated

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        January 26, 2016 4:40 PM

        While Carmack was still working for iD someone asked this question during a panel discussion at Quakecon. He said it would still be a very enjoyable experience for anyone with monocular vision and that you'd still get a surprising amount depth queuing but not from stereoscopy.

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          January 26, 2016 10:28 PM

          Right on. As long as its not Captain EO.

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        January 26, 2016 9:08 PM

        much better framerates

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          January 26, 2016 10:29 PM

          They should let you stream it to one eye for this very reason.

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      January 26, 2016 4:30 PM

      I think the advances in 3d audio could be a boon for audio only experiences

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      January 26, 2016 4:42 PM

      Not saying it's not going to happen or that it shouldn't be considered, but disabilities definitely won't be high on the list of things that a company is doing when they're just trying to ship a working product that will work for the much larger base of people without disabilities.

      I think it took a few iterations for the iPhone to get any good accessibility features. It'll probably take a few generations for there to be any real big thought into accessibility on VR.

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      January 26, 2016 4:45 PM

      This article seems like it's missing its second half. Stuff like "What are the biggest accessibility hurdles with the current tech?" and "What sort of things can be done about them?" and "How much of this is the responsibility of the VR developers as opposed to, say, OS developers?" It got right up to addressing questions like those and then ended.

      Of course it isn't the author's responsibility to solve those problems but explaining some of them and throwing some ideas out there would have been nice. Without that my reaction is more along the lines of "One thing at a time, they don't even have it right for non-disabled gamers yet."

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      January 26, 2016 5:30 PM

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. My mom is physically disabled (can't walk is the easiest way to describe it), and I remember when my parents got a Wii when it first came out. It was really cool to be able to "play sports" with my mom, really for the first time, since she was able to participate in things like bowling, tennis, golf, etc. Unlike with a controller or mouse + KB, the movement was convincingly natural.

      Anyway, I doubt Nintendo anticipated our situation. I think they just tried to design a fun game experience and it happened to work out. I'm going to imagine that there will be (and have been) similar experiences for people who are vision-impaired, even if the intent isn't there. VR could add a totally new dimension to audio experiences, for example, that could spawn their own gameplay mechanics. VR doesn't really look like my cup of tea, but I hope you get to play something cool on it!

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      January 26, 2016 5:43 PM

      Videogames for a long time have not been very accomodating to blind & visionless gamers. It is a huge problem that I hope is addressed with future generation consoles and PC software.

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        January 26, 2016 8:43 PM

        Who are you and what have you done with sleepy?

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        January 26, 2016 8:47 PM

        How do you see a gaming platform accommodating blind players? (totally serious question). I can imagine individual games being made for the blind, but at the platform level, what do you think could be done here?

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          January 26, 2016 9:09 PM

          Developers could ship 3D printed versions of their levels with the game and an action figure. Touch is a very valuable sense.

          Don't forget you have Vision Privledge. You haven't had to bump into things your whole life. Please recognize it. That's the only way we can solve this problem.

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          January 26, 2016 9:14 PM

          Direct image casting into the brain.

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            January 26, 2016 10:34 PM

            Disney apparently can send audio from coke machines straight to specific passerbys and others won't hear it. Video casting is not too far behind.

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          January 26, 2016 10:38 PM

          How do you see a gaming platform accommodating blind players?


          I see what you did there

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            January 26, 2016 10:58 PM

            finally, someone understands my stunted sense of humor.

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          January 27, 2016 4:14 AM

          Infocom adventures + text-to-speech + voice commands

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        January 26, 2016 9:06 PM

        Is it a huge problem?

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        January 26, 2016 10:26 PM

        Pretty much. Its only recently that games have started to deal with things like certain types of color-blindness.

        On top of all that they still need to solve the simulation sickness that some people get with the headsets.

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        January 26, 2016 11:23 PM

        We joke, but honestly I'm amazed that I can't think of a single audio only title.

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          January 26, 2016 11:43 PM

          A blind Thief like game could be amazing.

          The audio placement in the first two were amazing, and pretty good in the third (with some bugs involving bugs), enhancing the positional audio and toolset in such a manner that it doesn't need visuals to function – shit I already kinda want to play that.

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            January 26, 2016 11:54 PM

            Neat! I'm familiar with Robin's work via SoundSelf, but I somehow missed reading about Deep Sea.

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          January 27, 2016 1:19 AM

          The only thing that comes to mind is the hidden area in Limbo, but even then you had visual cues to teach the audio mechanics.

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          January 27, 2016 3:33 AM

          Papa Sangre!

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        January 26, 2016 11:48 PM

        The "video" part in video games is fairly important.

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      January 26, 2016 7:05 PM

      Good stuff - and really important stuff. Something getting more discussion at the university I work at is universal design - I think one of the key takeaways is that by designing things to be more accessible, everyone benefits whether or not they would need accommodation normally.

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      January 27, 2016 10:18 AM

      I have another problem with all the new VR hardware - the strap around your head. I have a plate in my head that hurts 24/7. I can no longer wear my baseball-type hats because the plastic sizer on the back rubs (& hurts) at the exact spot the screws are in. This is also where the strap on all these VR set-ups goes.

      I don't look at it as a loss. I see it as a way to save money for non-VR games!

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