Entry Level Accessibility Barriers – A Thought Provoking Challenge For Immersive Technologies

Muadh Al Kalbani
Published 02/06/2024
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Accessibility challenges for immersive technologiesSay It Louder: Accessibility Is Important

The importance of accessibility cannot be disputed. This is underpinned by two of the key sustainable goals set out by the United Nations: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” and “Reduced Inequalities” that place accessibility and inclusiveness at the heart of a more sustainable and equal world.

In the context of Immersive Technologies (i.e. Augmented and virtual reality – AR/VR), accessibility problems arise primarily due to the lack of inclusion of impaired users during research and development of immersive technologies, hence leading to products that are not usable for those groups. Additionally accessibility issues can also arise due to wider societal problems such as the divide in digital literacy between impaired and able-bodied communities in terms of access, financial equality, and quality of education. Target audiences for accessibility features have also evolved over the years with “situated impairment” now becoming more prominent for all users and not only those with impairments. This really puts into perspective the quote of: “if you design for accessibility, you design for all”.


Accessibility In Immersive Technologies

Immersive technologies offer immense possibilities in reshaping communication, collaboration, and social interaction. As such accessibility problems in immersive technologies are now very well documented in the public domain, with key projects highlighting some of the key barriers experienced by users with a range of disabilities when interfacing with immersive technologies:

These projects did not only highlight the key barriers faced by users with a range of impairments using different methods and audiences, but they also provide guidelines and valuable future research directions to address the problems found. So why is this article important if everything has already been discussed with great solutions proposed?

The short answer? Entry level accessibility barriers.

Most accessibility projects like the ones mentioned above are immensely valuable in highlighting barriers linked to the software and hardware of immersive technologies such as cybersickness, fatigue and lack of customisation to name a few of some of the well-known problems with immersive technologies and devices. Picture the following scenarios to better understand current software and hardware barriers:

  • Person A: A deaf person with hearing aids puts on a VR headset. The VR headset is not compatible with the hearing aid and automatically causes uncomfortable feedback in the ears. User takes off the VR headset immediately.
  • Person B: A blind person successfully puts on a VR headset. There is some audio feedback in the immersive experience however no suitable navigation or usage instructions are provided and the user is completely lost once in the experience. User takes off VR headset immediately.
  • Person C: A highly functional autistic user successfully puts on a VR headset. The VR experience is a fast-paced roller coaster ride with bright colours. The user cannot customise the experience in terms of speed, colours and frame rate and gets overwhelmed and distressed. User takes off the VR headset.
  • Person D: A person with involuntary hand movements successfully puts on a VR headset. The VR experience requires calculated controller movements to interact with the immersive experience. The user cannot complete any tasks due to involuntary hand movements that never match the required hand movements by the immersive experience. User takes off VR headsets immediately.

No matter how complex, it can be argued that software and hardware barriers can be addressed by research and industry communities through innovative and inclusive efforts. Additionally the rapid technological advances in immersive technologies are also expected to mitigate many of the barriers associated with the hardware and software components of immersive technologies with time and with little to no intervention. But there remains one type of barriers that requires a grander effort to understand and address – Entry Level Accessibility Barriers.



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The Grand Challenge: Entry Level Barriers

Entry level barriers can be defined as challenges faced by people living with impairments before using immersive technologies. In simpler terms, barriers that are present before the user even puts a VR/AR headset on. Entry level barriers challenge the conception that accessibility barriers are mostly present on software and hardware levels and discard the assumption that people with impairments are already using these technologies.

Let’s revisit the scenarios above for Persons A, B, C and D in the context of entry level barriers:

  • Person A: they never got a chance to use VR due to the closed nature of deaf communities that are usually unsure about using new technologies.
  • Person B: they never got a chance to put the VR device on (or turn it on) due to lack of braille in the instructions leaflet accompanying the device.
  • Person C: they never got a chance to use VR due to the lack of awareness around immersive technologies and their availability in their communities.
  • Person D: they did not use any immersive technologies to begin with due to the lack of accessibility features and the additional effort and cost associated with them.

With entry barriers factored in, the accessibility problem in immersive technologies becomes amplified as these barriers absolutely eliminate, not only limit, access to immersive experiences for users living with impairments. The impact of entry level barriers can be even more significant if we revisit the scenarios for Persons A, B, C and D one last time:

Persons A, B, C and D never got to experience immersive technologies because they were faced by the two biggest entry barriers of them all: economic and education inequality. They could not afford any of the devices and manufacturers do not necessarily allow trials of these products (but we try phones and take funny pictures with them – weird huh?). They may have passively gotten a chance to try the devices in school or work, which is a level of exposure that is minimal and in no way, life changing as immersive technologies can potentially be.


An Immersive Future For All

For software and hardware related barriers, I have great confidence in the research community to tackle these problems in years to come. However, entry level barriers require a much grander effort to address. One that necessitates users living with impairments to be at the heart of a collective effort from not only manufacturers and researchers of immersive technologies, but more widely on legislation, policy, and governing levels. This collective effort will ensure accessibility in immersive devices and technologies is there by law, similar to mobile phones, computers and the web. Additionally it will raise awareness around the key barriers faced by users living with a range of impairments and eventually lead to a more welcoming technology for us all from the entry point.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.