Accessibility of Virtual Reality Environments
Virtual reality replaces the real world with a virtual environment created by software. e.g. Oculus Rift, HTC vive, Google cardboard
Augmented reality supplements the real world with virtual objects. e.g. Microsoft Hololens, Google Glass
Virtual reality has had mixed reviews from users with disabilities
Pro: Allows users to experience situations that they cannot control in real life
Pro: Can offers improved spatial awareness and hand/eye coordination
Pro: Lends itself to peer mentoring for those requiring assistance
Pro: Virtual reality is perceived favorably by the public, particularly when linked to theraputic outcomes
7 Con: Virtual reality has a lot of blue-sky thinking associated with it. Viewing virtual reality as a 'cure' for disability raises a number of ethical considerations
Con: Users who experience difficulties may choose abandon virtual experiences rather than seek assistance
Students taking a virtual fieldtrip. Photo credit:
Barrett Web Coordinator
Pro: Virtual environments can offer users the ability to overcome real world physical barriers
Pro: Avatars allows users to customise how they present themselves to others. Some users choose an avatar with a wheelchair, others do not: some switch between avatars with and without mobility aids
1 Con: Interaction in virtual environments often involves precise click targets
Con: Users with mobility impairments may have difficulty using input devices such as motion controllers
Con: Users with mobility impairments may have difficulty using head trackers to adjust roll, pitch and yaw
Con: Users with severe mobility impairments may find locomotion, such as walking or flying, difficult
Con: Users may have difficulty sensing haptic cues
Examples of Haptic Cues 5 Cue Ambient Object Movement Informational Tactile
Atmospheric Wind, Factory-floor vibration
Air-conditioning airflow, Air-conditioning vibration
Movement wind, footstep vibration
Directional wind, proximity alert vibration
Force feedback for object collisions
Force feedback from joystick
Mobility Use Cases
As a user with a mobility impairment, I need to be able to adjust time limits, so I can complete tasks.
As a user with a mobility impairment, I need to use multiple input devices, so that I can interact with the environment.
As a user with a mobility impairment, I need a focus indicator, so I can identify which element has focus.
A wheelchair being used as an input device. Image courtesy of Tim Lupo
Pro: To date VR has focussed mainly on the visual aspects of virtual reality
Con: Some virtual experiences rely heavily on audible cues to guide users
Con: Bluetooth latency impacts upon the ability of users to perceive visual and audio events synchronously
Con: Users may not be able to communicate using voice chat
Con: Audio dialog requires captions
Con: Sign language is not supported
Examples of Auditory Cues 5 Ambient Object Movement Informational
City street noise
Hearing Use Cases
As a user with a hearing impairment, I need to be able to turn off ambient soundscapes, so I can hear interface elements such as clicks, bleeps and transitions.
As a user with a hearing impairment, I need visual or haptic equivalents of aural interfaces, so I can interact with interface elements.
As a user who hears better in one ear, I need to be able to control the location of spatialized audio, so I can hear interface elements.
As a user with a hearing impairment, I need captions of dialog, so I can read what is being said.
Phoebe Kaplan films Maggie Bork as she signs an American Sign Language poem. The video was incorporated into a virtual reality mobile application. Photo courtesy of UNCG.
Pro: If given training and time to learn, users with cognitive impairments can become proficient in virtual environments
1 Pro: The vividness and synchronous interaction of virtual environments can allow users to focus their attention more effectively
Pro: Can allow users with Asperger's Syndrome to learn social skills that might be difficult to grasp in real life
1 Pro: Students who need more training and time can usually replicate learning artefacts and interactions
Pro: Virtual environments can be designed to support error-free training, which can assist cognitive disorders
7 Pro: The distratction offered by Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) has the potential to diminish pain perception amongst chronic and acute pain sufferers
8 Con: The user interface may be difficult to learn
Con: Virtual world skills may be difficult to acquire
Con: Input devices such as wands, joysticks and 3D mice may be difficult to master
7 Con: Some users may experience vertigo
Con: Users may suffer from motion sickness, due to conflicts between sensory cues or between the virtual environment and what is felt be the body
7 Con: Users may experience disturbed motor skills after using virtual environments, due to a lag in readaptation to the real world environment
7 Con: Flashing or moving objects may cause seizures or migraines
Cognition Use Cases
As a user with a photosensitive seizure disorder, I need to avoid three flashes in a second, so I do not have a seizure.
As a user with a cognitive impairment, I need training and time, so that I can learn the environment.
As a user with a disability, I need suggestions on how to fix input errors, so I can easily correct mistakes.
VR spatial rotation exercise being used to test cognition. Image courtesy of Ye Pan, UCL
Pro: Voice chat can be useful
Con: Users may have difficulty identifying objects
Con: Users may have difficulty perceiving events
Con: Users need to be able to change the text size of the interface and chat windows
Con: Users may have trouble reading text which lacks sufficient contrast against the background
Low Vision Use Cases
As a user with low vision, I need to be able to increase text size, so I can read without a screen magnifier.
As a user with low vision, I need to have sufficient contrast between text and the background, so I can read the text.
Simulation of a virual environment (left) as seen by a user with a vision impairment (right). Original image:
Pro: Haptic feedback an alternate means of feedback to users
Pro: Organisations such as the
Web3D Consortium are trying to develop open standards, such as X3D, so that 3D web-based graphics can be intergrated with HTML Pro: Mobility and orientation activities in virtual environments can transer to real environments
4 Pro: Sensory substitution devices (SSDs), such as vitual canes and visual to music converters, can be used to aid virtual mobility and perception of shapes and colors
4 Con: Most content of virtual environments is heavily visual
Con: VR platforms are not designed to work with screen readers such as JAWS or NVDA
Con: Don't use the usual accessibility APIs
Con: There is no accepted metadata standard virtual worlds
Con: Developers do not have access to information for understanding the needs of vision impaired users, or accepted techniques for resolving issues
Con: Whilst many of the use cases for VR are similar to the web, there are no accessibility guidelines such as alternative text and meta information for objects
Examples of Visual Cues 5 Ambient Object Movement Informational
Information panel, virtual compass
Blindness Use Cases
As a user with no vision, I need verbal descriptions of interactions, objects and locations, so I can navigate.
Haptic glove being used for virtual interaction. Photo credit:
Pro: For the most part, users who have difficulty perceiving odours will have little difficutly interacting with virtual environments
Pro: Many olfactory cues, such as the smell of a burning pot in a cooking activity, can be represented visually, e.g. smoke coming from a pot
Con: Smell is likely to be an important part of Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR)
Examples of Olfactory Cues 5 Ambient Object Movement Informational
Smell of the Sea
Rosemary indicating color
Olfactory Use Cases
As a user who cannot who has difficulty perceiving odours, I need a visual equivalents, so I can perceive olfactory events.
Pro: Rehabilitation activities for stroke in virtual environments can translate to real world outcomes
7 Pro: Gaming features in virtual environments can enhance motivation of stroke sufferers undergoing therapy
Pro: VR lends itself to home based rehabilitation
Use Cases of Older Users
As an older user I need training and time, so that I can learn the environment.
Issues for Academics
How do we define the learning outcomes of virtual reality interactions?
How do we evaluate the success of virtual world interactions?
Citation: Gregory, S., Lee, M.J., Dalgarno, B. and Tynan, B. eds., 2016. Learning in Virtual Worlds: Research and Applications. Athabasca University Press.
Summary: contains an interesting chapter on (In)accessible learning in Virtual Worlds. Much of the conclusions are drawn from Second Life but are still relevant to other VR applications
Citation: Wankel, C. and Malleck, S.K., 2010. Emerging ethical issues of life in virtual worlds. IAP.
Summary: A collection of articles on topics such as virtual violence, virtual sex, virtual medical education, copyright and ethics
Summary: Discussion of some of the open source alternatives in VR and the barriers to adoption
Non-visual virtual interaction: Can Sensory Substitution generically increase the accessibility of Graphical virtual reality to the blind?
Citation: Maidenbaum, S. and Amedi, A., 2015, March. Non-visual virtual interaction: Can Sensory Substitution generically increase the accessibility of Graphical virtual reality to the blind?. In Virtual and Augmented Assistive Technology (VAAT), 2015 3rd IEEE VR International Workshop on (pp. 15-17). IEEE.
Summary: Examines the use of Sensory Substitution Devices (SSDs), such as vitual canes and visual to music converters, to aid virtual mobility and perception of shapes and colors
An initial exploration of a multi-sensory design space: Tactile support for walking in immersive virtual environment.
Citation: Feng, M., Dey, A. and Lindeman, R.W., 2016, March. An initial exploration of a multi-sensory design space: Tactile support for walking in immersive virtual environments. In 2016 IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces (3DUI) (pp. 95-104). IEEE.
Summary: Examines the use of multi-sensory feedback to improve user experience in virtual environments
Citation: Ischer, M., Baron, N., Mermoud, C., Cayeux, I., Porcherot, C., Sander, D. and Delplanque, S., 2014. How incorporation of scents could enhance immersive virtual experiences. Applied Olfactory Cognition, p.119.
Summary: Investigation of an odor delivery system for virtual reality
A SWOT analysis of the field of virtual reality rehabilitation and therapy
Citation: Rizzo, A.A. and Kim, G.J., 2005. A SWOT analysis of the field of virtual reality rehabilitation and therapy. Presence, 14(2), pp.119-146.
Summary: Excellent overview focussing on the benefits of virtual reality for rehabilitation and therapy
A rapid evidence assessment of immersive virtual reality as an adjunct therapy in acute pain management in clinical practice
Citation: Garrett, B., Taverner, T., Masinde, W., Gromala, D., Shaw, C. and Negraeff, M., 2014. A rapid evidence assessment of immersive virtual reality as an adjunct therapy in acute pain management in clinical practice. The Clinical journal of pain, 30(12), pp.1089-1098.
Summary: Interesting discussion of the posibility for virtual reality to diminish pain perception by modulating interactions among different neurons
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Web Accessibility Lead
Phone: +61 3 9035 4867