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An Accessible Future – XR

Considerations for Virtual, Mixed, and Augmented Reality

8/20/2020 9:00:00 AM

Woman at her desk wearing a virtual reality headset, arms in the air.

By: Jennie Delisi, Accessibility Analyst, MNIT’s Office of Accessibility

While virtual, mixed, and augmented reality are terms we may recognize in relation to video games, TV shows, or coming from a teenager, the technologies are spreading into a more everyday use in our lives.  More workplaces are adding them into our work environments as part of:

  • online experiences,
  • training spaces,
  • and considerations for future projects. 

Most people are familiar with virtual reality (VR), which is a computer-generated simulation or re-creation of a real-life environment or situation. VR does this through visuals, sounds, and sometimes through sensations like vibration. Sounds can seem to originate from different locations with 360-degree views.

Then there’s augmented reality (AR) – the layering of computer-generated images on top of existing reality. For example, when watching a football game on TV, the first-down line is overlaid on the field using AR.

AR and VR are not mutually exclusive technologies, which led to a new term, extended reality (XR) to describe all combinations of AR and VR. Implementations of XR will provide more inclusive experiences for employees, as well as pose some accessibility challenges.    

XR In Future Work Spaces

Opportunities for virtual new employee “orientation events”

Mixed reality could provide ways for new employees to get to know their colleagues, which would be especially helpful for some starting a new job while working remotely. Before a new employee webinar, as attendees arrive, they could meet in a virtual room. They can casually chat as they would at an in-person event. Or, they could complete certain virtual activities, such as a scavenger hunt, in small teams.

Virtual training spaces

Those who learn by doing could interact with tools and technologies from afar. For example, individuals could use computer simulation in a shared online space to learn how to operate machinery which usually requires the students to be next to the teacher. 

Such environments could also help some teachers show a student a complicated process. Some students learn better when the teacher can “physically” point to something, especially when the information can be reviewed in two different applications. For example, when teaching someone how the tags in a PDF correspond to the content in a Word document. You may move back and forth between the two applications and want to display them side by side. “Pointing” to the information on each application will help some students better understand the concepts, know where the teacher would like them to focus their attention. This may help when learning how components or concepts flow together. In this way, XR can save time, by reducing the need to create detailed and accessible screenshots and instructions. It can be more like the side by side training we gave at people’s desks in the past.

Increased employment opportunities

Some people with disabilities are excellent trainers. With XR they could train employees on how to use equipment or technology even if the trainers would not be able to use that equipment outside of the virtual space.

XR Access Symposium

As part of the XR Access Symposium I attended in July, I got to learn more about these types of experiences. I also got to try out some technologies for myself. The symposium provided experimental virtual rooms that attendees could join using a mobile or a desktop device. These rooms enabled us to:

  • Talk with other attendees.
  • Move throughout the room to find out what else was in there.
  • Manipulate objects within the room.
  • Consume content, such as information displayed on a screen within the room.

Some attendees had disabilities, others did not. The event hosts set up both large- and small capacity rooms. They also had rooms with audio description  and others that provided American Sign Language. One goal was to give those newer to accessibility an opportunity to experience an inclusive session. The other was to let people try out some of the accessibility features in development.

Speakers shared considerations for universal design and accessibility principles:

  • Captions – where is the person looking within the virtual room? Where will the captions be? How will you keep the person following the captions from getting dizzy as they read captions and possibly move throughout the space?
  • Sign Language – where does the interpreter appear within the interface? How does this impact the person’s ability to interact within the space?
  • Keyboard only and screen reader users – how do they move throughout the space and manipulate objects? How do they know what is in the room? How do they not bump into other “people” and objects within the space?

Takeaways from the Experts

  • Incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning with virtual reality: We can teach machines what they need to do for each individual to optimize learning. Because people learn differently, this technology can provide alternative learning approaches. (Tom Furness, Professor and International Director, Human Interface Technology Laboratory, University of Washington)  
  • Content without headsets: Some people cannot use a headset or the motion aspects of the virtual environment. Alternatives should be considered to enable access to the same content. (Erin Hawley, Writer and Accessibility Consultant, The Geeky Gimp) 
  • People using augmentative and alternative communication devices (AAC): When designing an experience where participants talk, consider the needs of those using this type of assistive technology. How can they access their assistive technology within these environments? (Joel Ward, Technology Specialist, Booz Allen Hamilton)
  • Begin with accessibility in mind: There are some projects in the XR space that did not begin with accessibility in mind. “If they are not thinking about accessibility now, they won’t be able to go full enterprise.” This is key when planning XR into your next project. (Joel Ward, Technology Specialist, Booz Allen Hamilton)  

Learn More

For those that would like to learn more about XR, find great resources:

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