We live in a dream, a dream of the past. We may have past the limits of our imagination today but new ones are coming up each day. In these times, where the perception of reality evolves, virtual reality continues to spread in many areas of our lives. Although Virtual Reality may have been known as a visual tool to explore virtual universes, it also creates physical and mental stimulations by interacting with users’ various senses. Day after day, these interactions provide opportunities for people with disabilities, as in many other fields. In addition to VR’s positive contribution to the treatment processes of physical and mental illnesses, disabled individuals can have experiences that they could not have before. In this article, we will discuss more the benefits of VR software and hardware specifically designed for individuals with disabilities while trying to address the following question: what kind of improvements are needed to enhance the interaction between these tools and the people with disabilities when we think about accessibility?
In general, the topic of accessibility in virtual reality applications has three main focus points; developing virtual environments, designing appropriate tools and documentations. The first section will explore a selection of software implementations, the second section will discuss how physical interactions can affect the user experience and lastly the third one will address the issues in the current situation of the marketplace.
Accessible Virtual Environments
While virtual simulations designed for people with disabilities are increasing day by day, VR has begun to replace traditional treatment methods in the healthcare field. Studies have shown that individuals with autism and those with disorders such as Asperger's syndrome or clinical depression can overcome issues such as trust, communication and self-control in the real world to some extent with VR technologies. Virtual reality is also useful for helping people who have suffered from strokes or sports-related injuries and even vestibular system issues, to improve their motor skills and to help in muscle recovery. Last but not least, due to the research, even the act of imagining that one is performing an activity is enough to stimulate the relevant parts of the brain needed to perform the activity itself.
With the WalkingVR project, due to the strong immersive nature of the VR glasses and its contents, the experiencer can be emotionally and physically stimulated. WalkingVR requires repetitive physiological movements. In this way, this particular application provides beneficial results to users. In addition to virtual reality supported treatment methods, there are also gamified contents such as fitness and wellness programs to protect body health which attract high attention from users, especially due to the conditions in recent months.
Medibooth, which aims to break down mental barriers as well as physical barriers, primarily isolates users from the chaos of the outside world. By presenting the meditation and breathing techniques that Metin Hara has been working on for many years to experience in a virtual reality universe, it takes the act of meditation to another dimension.
sAs well as the content, platforms with well-curated accessibility features play an important role in improving the quality of life of people with disabilities. In the following section, we have reviewed a few examples of the platforms which were created specifically according to the types and levels of ailments of individuals with disabilities.
VR is generally associated with the visual senses, however, Touching Masterpieces which is designed for the visually impaired, uses the touch as a primary sense. Special tactile gloves designed using haptic feedback allow visually impaired people to feel the sculptures. In this project, the players can experience Nefertiti's bust, Venus de Milo and Michelangelo's statue of David through virtual reality.
Eye Play The Piano
Eye Play The Piano is a project developed by Fove in Japan With the combination of fine user experience and Head-Mounted Device which includes embedded eye trackers, physically disabled people now can play the piano using only their eyes.
Aira is a smart glass produced to make life easier for visually impaired individuals. Using Google Glass technology, Aira connects people to its assistant through the network and simultaneously allows the assistant to see everything which the user sees. With its live broadcast feature, the assistant can make audio calls too. The visually impaired users can activate the glasses at any time just by touching the camera and the microphone buttons simultaneously. Also, Aira can be used via a smartphone.
Lack of Documentation
In the context of VR contents creation, specially curated projects for people with disabilities are just the tip of the iceberg. These solutions produced only for certain symptoms and ailments show that virtual reality technologies still have to go further. When the production methods are considered, disabled people should be included in the programs more during the design and testing stages. Inclusion of people with disabilities in programs will also mean the inclusion of foundations and healthcare professionals during the process. Therefore it is possible to talk about the job opportunities that can be provided to people with disabilities in the fields of technology and innovation.
Special methods for people with disabilities should be included in the documentation and directives and open to content developers. Problems arising from lack of documentation can be a distraction to the individuals with disabilities from using virtual reality. For example, the use of a voice assistant for the ear sensory organ can provide an opportunity for individuals who have problems with other sensory organs.
As it turns out, Virtual Reality continues to enter our world with all kinds of works and eventually there will be nobody who has not experienced these technologies. Or will it remain as an inadequate interaction tool for some of us? In line with this information, Virtual Reality is the beginning of the future for everyone and is rapidly evolving. Everyone who aims globalism in these processes should also consider individuals with disabilities. With the growing and rapidly developing technology, living standards are rising, opportunities and the world are expanding. One of the main goals of us who are developing virtual reality should be to present this world to disabled individuals.
Author: Hasret Özer
Editor: Lalin Keyvan
Advisor: Burcu Doğru