Learning to design virtual reality for accessibility
Virtual reality is pushing further into the mainstream, and we’re really excited about that at Runaway. It brings with it a lot of challenges but also, a host of possibilities for us as developers and designers. Not least of which is the constant drive to make VR experiences more seamlessly enjoyable and accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Our as-yet untitled VR team’s release for Daydream by Google is due for launch in December, and accessibility has been a major part of our development process.
Our experience with previous titles probably gave us a leg-up when it came to accessibility. Three existing, non-VR casual games — Flutter: Butterfly Sanctuary, Flutter: Starlight and Splash: Ocean Sanctuary — followed a similar theme of collecting nature-based creatures in a relaxing gameplay environment.
They provided us a strong backlog of feedback from players about the positive effects of these games for those living with physical disabilities or mental ill-health. We have also learned from ASMR to incorporate ambient sounds into our audio design, specifically to trigger feelings of emotional well-being.
So while this VR project is being designed for a mass audience, we were aware of accessibility issues from the start. We wanted to make something everyone could play even if they couldn’t get out into nature themselves and we wanted our players to be able to experience the game while sitting comfortably in a couch or laying in bed. That set a bunch of obstacles in our way when it came to design, from the interface and controls, to how the experience would make a player feel emotionally and physically.
Daydream by Google
Physical barriers were the first we needed to tackle. The Daydream controller’s design, with its simple three degrees of freedom, immediately makes the game more accessible for people with limited movement in the arms and hands especially. In that sense the hardware gave us the foundation to build the design on.
This then forced us to focus on the simplest way to control gameplay and move around within the game. This has required us to make some compromises to the traditional “big room” movement the wider public have come to expect of VR gameplay. In our game the player moves by clicking on a ground spot to move there. Similarly, clicking the controller left or right enables them to turn . This opened full body movement using just one hand with the controller through the environment. We felt the trade-off was worth it, if it meant the experience could be more widely accessible.
We’ve been really lucky to work collaboratively with a local organisation who help people return to work after injury. When Southern Rehab approached us to ask about researching how a player on the higher end of the disability scale would be able to handle such a game, we jumped at the chance to collect real user feedback as the design progressed.
Beyond important research, it became a personal joy to watch people with limited movement use the Daydream controller so easily and experience moving around in nature through VR. One tester in particular was almost entirely paralyzed, with very limited mobility in her hands. She told us that being able to simply use her thumb to control all the in-game actions and movement was a massive bonus for her.
Accessibility isn’t just physical
Of course we knew from our previous projects that accessibility is about much more than body movement. This is especially true of immersive experiences like VR. So once we’d tackled the physical barriers, we moved on to the design elements that affect players emotionally.
One tester who was a wheelchair user explained she suffered regularly from motion sickness when driving. She had played some VR and had experienced motion sickness there as well. So we looked at how the in-game movement was cognitively processed, compared to the experience of moving in the real-world, and made sure she wouldn’t get motion sickness. In our project, the player controls the movement, which teleports them from one spot to another. They can teleport as fast or as slow as they want and the speed is always consistent and involves no acceleration, which generally what induces motion sickness in VR. Our player found no ill-effects from her test time in the game.
We also looked at the sensory issues for a player on the autism spectrum to see if the VR audio triggered anxiety in the same way as real-world audio does. People with autism can experience sensory overload, whereby loud noises in real environments or delivered through headphones can prove uncomfortable. Here, our experience with ASMR was invaluable, allowing us to incorporate natural relaxation sounds to evoke positive feelings. Our two testers who are on the autism spectrum both reported that they felt comfortable wearing the headphones at the recommended volume, despite a mixture of sounds coming through. We feel this is because we include sounds that will specifically induce feelings of calmness rather than cause stress, suspense or any negative emotions that raise anxiety levels while playing.
The future of accessibility in VR
As a studio team, this project design, coupled with our past experiences, has honed our focus on ensuring we design VR experiences that are accessible and have a positive effect on players. It’s all too easy for us as developers to design for the world we are accustomed to living in, in the way we are used to experiencing it. It takes effort to go beyond that. We believe it’s worth it. Audiences will benefit and VR itself will benefit.
As we try to move this technology towards mainstream adoption, that’s exactly what the industry needs.
Emma Johansson is the VR Product Owner and head of the design team at Runaway Play, a games development company based in Dunedin, New Zealand.
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