Why VR/AR Developers Should Prioritize Accessibility in UX/UI Design

Ben Formaker-Olivas
Mar 19 · 8 min read

In November of 2017, I was standing in the office of my new home, happily helping my friend put on an HTC Vive virtual reality headset. As someone who believes that immersive technology will , I never tire of watching the wonder someone experiences when trying it out for the first time. I slid the straps over her head, put the controllers in her hands, and waited eagerly for her exclamations of joy. She looked around, waved the controllers in the air, and then stopped.

“I can’t reach anything,” she told me hesitantly.

Assuming I must have made a mistake during the setup process, I took the headset and placed it on my own head. I immediately realized what had happened. The player height was set for me rather than her. I put the headset back on her head, guided her through the game’s initial calibration process (which measures height and arm span based off of the location of the headset and controllers), and waited again. This time, it seemed as if things were working properly.

HTC Vive controller

The game, , tasks you with defeating enemy robots with a variety of weapons. One of the first weapons you’re presented with is a semi-automatic pistol, which is strapped to your hip. To pull the gun out of its holster, you reach down to your hip and squeeze the side buttons of the controller.

To reload, you use your offhand to pull ammo from your other hip, . Guiding my friend to the shooting range, I explained this process to her and started the training sequence. Not only did she struggle with squeezing the side buttons on the controllers, but again she was unable to properly reach the areas necessary to grab the gun and ammo. Frustrated, I mirrored her view to my computer monitor and realized what the underlying problem was: both the Vive controllers and the game’s player calibration settings weren’t designed for a person with dwarfism.

My friend (left), and my attempts to navigate through the game with her calibrated height (right).

The video feed from her camera showed me as she repeatedly tried in vain to reach her holster. Unable to reconcile the different height-to-arm span proportions of her particular type of dwarfism, the game had adjusted the avatar in a way that made it unusable for her — the holster was now so low that my office floor prevented her from reaching it. In this instance, it wasn’t just one aspect that had failed her; it was a combination of both the hardware and the software that barred her access to this experience.

Up until this point in history, technology has required minimal physical interaction to access, in the form of typing, clicking, or tapping/swiping. That being said, many with alternative accessibility needs still find using a keyboard, mouse, or touchscreen cumbersome or simply impossible. Immersive technologies multiply the physical component of that interaction substantially, often requiring full-body interactions. When it comes to using VR, standing for long periods, wearing a heavy headset, and holding clunky controllers all stand as immediate barriers to entry for many users. As someone with arthritis, I’ve often had to pause a VR game after standing caused the pain in my ankles to become distracting. With the current AR headsets, current functionality like could be unstable or unusable for many, such as those with prosthetic limbs or limb paralysis. Taking a look at the software running on these platforms, the chances that content will lack accessibility options only rises. Audio clarity, text size and contrast, button layout options, movement requirements, and countless other factors each contribute to whether an application is going to be a comfortable, and accessible, experience for the user.

In combination with the usability design of the hardware, these factors collectively fall under user interface (UI) and, more broadly, user experience (UX) design. These areas of study employ psychology, anthropology, anatomy, color theory, and a host of other resources to shape a user’s experience with a product. Ever visited a website with or sit in an impossibly proportioned chair? These experiences provide a glimpse into what poor UX/UI design feels like from a user’s perspective, and what those with accessibility needs face with many everyday products and interfaces.

It’s easy to assume that people requiring accommodations and/or assistive technologies are able to plan ahead and make do. After all, we don’t generally go about our days worrying whether or not someone will be able to climb the staircase we’re walking up or type on the office’s standard issue keyboard. This line of thinking relegates the onus of obtaining access to the individuals affected, inflicting a financial burden and creating further barriers to access. What’s more, it’s even easier to assume that the broader population won’t need or benefit from the changes made in an attempt to broaden access. The puts the lie to both assumptions.

The Curb-Cut Effect refers to the when accessibility is prioritized. It’s impossible to predict every way in which a person might interact with a particular piece of infrastructure or consumer product, but by incorporating accessibility into the planning and production phases, you make the end result more usable to everyone. Did the original designers of curb cuts predict their usefulness for UPS drivers delivering heavy packages? Probably not, but their existence allows everyone to access them without the designer having to predict the many ways in which they will be useful. Speaking to many of my female friends in the immersive tech space, I have heard similar complaints about the Vive’s side buttons being hard to reach for smaller hands — showing that accessibility changes can affect a much larger part of your market demographic than you might expect. As Gamasutra wrote in their talks at the 2019 Game Developer’s Conference, “No matter how great your game is, people won’t play it if it’s a pain to approach, learn, and play.”

The lessons learned from the Curb-Cut Effect are invaluable for the future of immersive technologies. By prioritizing accessibility in of AR and VR, developers can ensure that those concepts are firmly rooted in the medium going forward. But how do we go about making that a priority? As developers, we know that there is always a wishlist of unfulfilled designs, features, and options that never see the light of day. We balance the ideal product against time and budget constraints, understanding that a less than ideal product will always earn more revenue than one that failed to reach the market. Here are a few ways to help ensure that accessibility is incorporated into your workflow from day one:

  • When planning a project, consider the end users for your product. Certain immersive hardware companies when their headset designs seemed to only fit well on close-cropped men’s hair, leading to questions of who the design was tested on versus who it was designed for. Chances are, your product will already have a focused customer base, and there’s no reason to limit that base further by not designing well.
  • Ensure that there are . By diversifying the sources of the ideas and feedback contributing to the project, you increase the chances that your design has the broadest appeal. Additionally, work to include multi-faceted diversity, considering everything from gender, ethnicity, ability, socio-economic background, and other forms of identity. Not only has this been shown to be a , it also instills consumer trust when they see their demographic represented at the company they’re buying from.
  • At every stage of planning and production, ask whether accessibility has been considered. Once accessibility has been discussed, don’t consider that box checked. Continually include it in your conversations to ensure that new ideas receive the same scrutiny as older ones did. Especially in the game development cycle of patches, updates, and DLC’s, keeping accessibility at the forefront of planning is crucial.
  • Make sure testing is conducted with a diverse group of candidates. Don’t just ask your friends to take a look at your products. If you’re part of a larger production, speak with the QA department to make sure they are bringing in candidates who reflect the broad swatch of users who may use your product.
  • Check assumptions at the door. The old adage about assumptions still rings true. For example, don’t assume that just because someone has limited use of their hands means they won’t be playing games. Microsoft’s demonstrates the interest everyone has in well-designed games.
  • Share your knowledge, and share resources. Given the ever-evolving nature of technology, it’s important that you share your knowledge with the community. We advance together or not at all, and you contribute to the overall health of the industry by sharing what you know.
  • Don’t limit what accessibility means in the context of your product. Accessibility within the context of this industry is completely relative to the product you’re creating. If you’re working on a rhythm-based dancing game, you will be concerned about a unique set of circumstances that won’t factor into a passive video experience. Try and understand the unique needs of your consumers rather than checking it against a generic list.
  • Be an advocate. The most important thing you can do for your product’s design is to be an advocate for accessibility. Whether it comes down to increasing your audience base, making the customer’s experience more pleasant, or giving your product a competitive edge, adding accessible options will only elevate the quality of your product.

With many of the major AR and VR hardware developers launching the next iteration of their headsets this year, some promising improvements are being made. Valve’s strap to the user’s hands and are extremely light. Both the and controllers feature a smaller grip and a more concentrated button pad. Microsoft’s second mixed reality headset, the (aimed at the commercial and industrial markets), features eye tracking, hand scanning, and voice recognition, all of which have fantastic applications for increasing accessibility. I’m hopeful that software developers will utilize these new tools for the games and other applications as they design for these platforms.

Access to technology and information is directly linked to an individual’s ability to succeed and flourish in modern society, and hardware and software developers alike play a vital role in providing that access. By increasing accessibility, we ensure that everyone is treated equitably, and shape a future based on inclusion and representation.

Inborn Experience (UX in AR/VR)

Learn about user experience in augmented and virtual reality

Ben Formaker-Olivas

Written by

Intersectional creator writing about VR/AR, gaming, and industry inclusion/representation.

Inborn Experience (UX in AR/VR)

Learn about user experience in augmented and virtual reality