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VR With Disabilities Or Vision Impairment

April 18, 2016 | vr disability vision impairment vive htc

Don't Count Yourself Out

While researching VR, I 've seen occasional comments from people with various forms of vision impairment or disability concerned that VR may not work for them and sometimes dismissing it outright. I’m not disabled and I'm not an expert on this subject, but, since I haven't seen much practical discussion of in-home VR with disabilities, I'd like to share my research and direct testing with my HTC Vive thus far in case it may be helpful to you if you are or know someone who is.

The quick answer is that there’s nothing stopping you from enjoying VR if you have vision impairment or are disabled in most cases.

Open mask of Vive; portal to other universe.

I've written this based only on direct experimental testing with the HTC Vive consumer version, but everything I say here should equally apply to the Oculus Rift except for room scale and touch dependent applications (like Tilt Brush). There’s plenty of content available with the Rift that puts you in cockpits or controlling things with a gamepad, so don’t feel like it is Vive or bust. However, if you have the space and ability to use room scale, you should really consider the Vive as room scale and touch is well worth the current $200 premium, at least until Oculus delivers its room scale and touch solutions.

Should I consider VR if I wear glasses or have vision impairment?

If you are totally blind, no. Otherwise, yes. If you have correctable vision in at least one eye, VR could still be of great interest to you. You can wear glasses comfortably inside the mask of the Vive as long as they are don't have enormous frames. Consider something like the Silhouette brand if you usually wear big, chunky glasses.

You actually don’t want lenses that are too small because even current generation VR has pretty impressive field of view and you want to put as much of that inside your correction as possible, so don’t obsess about getting a tiny pair of glasses to make the fit. A circular lens will be best as that shape matches the lens in the headset, and it doesn’t matter how it looks if you have a dedicated pair for VR because no one is going to see it. Note that the Vive also has the ability to increase the space between your face and the lens (“eye relief”), so you can create more space between your eyes and the lens to fit glasses.

Open mask of Vive with measurements for glasses.

Even if you have correctable vision in only one eye, VR may still be attractive to you. First, since VR has built in head tracking, you will be able to turn and naturally look at things unlike what you can do with a monitor.

Second, binocular vision is only one of the many ways that your brain perceives depth, and it’s not even the most important one. If you have correctable vision in only one eye, it’s probable that your brain is already extensively adapted to judge depth perception without binocular vision.

Third, room scale VR like that of the Vive is a different thing entirely than anything you have experienced with computing. Even if you only have correctable vision in one eye, you can still walk through virtual scenes. You can still draw in Tilt Brush, shoot a bow (probably more accurately than people with stereo vision since they have to deal with double images of the arrow when targeting distant objects), and enjoy the sense of presence. In some apps, like Tilt Brush, you’ll have to work a bit harder than other people in terms of trying to gauge the depth of your brush strokes, but you are already familiar with making these types of accommodations in real life.

What if I am color blind?

If you are color blind, you will still benefit from head tracking, depth perception, and room scale immersion. Of course, you aren’t going to see any more colors than you see in the real world and you may have some difficulty with apps that don’t use colors that are good contrasts for you (it’s highly doubtful that any VR developer is intentionally accommodating you right now and VR in general has strange palettes).

If you jump in and experience difficulty with some apps, post on forums and other people with full color vision will likely help you out. Ideally, include a screenshot of what is confusing to you since what you are missing may be immediately clear to someone else. There’s been some research lately on special glasses that help people with color blindness see more, though not all, colors. The technology isn’t totally proven yet and results vary by individual, so beware if you go that route.

Should I consider VR if I am immobile or use a wheel chair?

You should only avoid VR for now if you are truly immobile, as in quadriplegic or similar, simply because you would be very frustrated by the control schemes, none of which are taking into account serious disabilities at this time. Hopefully, software and hardware developers will start incorporating features for seriously disabled people, but the market is very young and most are just trying to survive, which requires focusing time and attention initially on the mainstream experience.

If you are not truly immobile, you can still benefit from head tracking and depth perception. If you cannot sit up easily, it will be difficult for you and you will likely not benefit so much from the Vive touch controllers that need at least your arms to have some freedom. In this case, you may want to investigate an Oculus gamepad solution.

If you are wheelchair bound or have difficulty walking, you may benefit from VR *more* than people who are not wheelchair bound because VR will put you in places that are currently very difficult for you to go, like remote mountain tops. Also, VR, even Vive VR, is designed with the sit down or stand in one place with limited mobility possibilities in mind because it is assumed some people will not have much real physical space to setup VR. Therefore, many applications allow you to teleport around with a click of a button.

The critical question is about room scale VR, which only the Vive supports at this time. If you can move around steadily with the assistance of something like a cane, walker, or wheelchair, you can still enjoy room scale VR. Crutches should be avoided as you will be unsteady when using touch – use a wheelchair instead. There are times in VR, particularly when using Tilt Brush, that I would appreciate a wheelchair to be able to steady myself in a more comfortable position while finely drawing in a certain area, so you may even have an advantage in some cases.

The challenge you need to keep in mind is cord management, particularly with a wheelchair. You don’t want it getting tangled in the wheels and you probably should not be running over the cable all the time with the wheels (stepping on a cable distributes force differently than the rim of a wheel). Get someone to help you figure out a way to elevate the cabling and do some experiments.

The long cable of the Vive, all 16' of it.

The bottom line is that VR will still be useful to you if you are mobility disabled in the majority of cases. Depending on your disability, it may not be easy, but you won’t be completely unable to participate.

How about if I have arm, hand, or motor control issues?

Unfortunately, this is going to be one of the most difficult challenges because the control schemes of most applications assume two fully functional hands. Gamepads generally require a two hand grip. Vive has some interesting possibilities for someone who has or can use only one hand with the touch controller, but a lot of the applications have control schemes that assume you will use both touch controllers simultaneously. That’s not to say that you couldn’t do some things with one, but you will be randomly frustrated if you can only use one controller.

Motor control issues could also be problematic. For Vive touch, generally you don’t have to be exact in many applications, just in the general area, to be able to activate things. Some games that require shooting with rays from the touch controllers would be difficult if you could not control them smoothly. This is a gray area because it depends in large part on just how unsteady or slow your hand movements are; there’s no definite cut off. If you cannot use touch reliably, then you should probably go with the Rift because with the Vive, touch and room scale go together.

The Vive touch controller, not very heavy; easily gripped with thumb and two fingers.

Of course, if you have already found a way to play games that require gamepads or computer/mouse control, then you’ll be able to use the same accommodations to use the same with at least non-touch VR. The good news is that as the industry matures, developers will likely start developing control schemes that may be more amenable to people who can only use one hand well or have motor control issues.

Should I consider VR if I cannot hear with one or both ears?

Absolutely. You’ll still benefit from head tracking, depth perception, and room scale. Beware that you’ll have to be more vigilant about scanning your environment because some apps use audio cues to indicate you should look in a particular direction, but you have likely developed these accommodations for real life. The great thing about games and VR experiences is that they are usually predictable and replayable, so if you miss a sound cue and the game mega boss stomps you from behind, well, reload. This time, you’ll know where he’s coming from and you’ll make him pay.

For the creative apps, like Tilt Brush, you will be at no or a very, very slight disadvantage. Tilt Brush has a nice scrabbling sound when you are drawing, but you can easily make do without.

If you have hearing aids and can use them with headphones, you should be fine. The HTC Vive comes with small earbuds you place in your ears that will definitely not be compatible with hearing aids, but you can disconnect these earbuds and plug in your own set of headphones, which you can wear without problems with the headset on.

The earbuds that come with the Vive.

Note also that that VR audio is very immature right now. It does basic panning and horizontal direction, but it doesn’t do vertical direction or distance very well.

Are there any other cheaper alternatives?

Yes. The one I recommend is TrackIR. It works by tracking your head and changing the view on your monitor as if you moved the mouse left or right with mouse look enabled, but without changing where your weapon is aimed or your vehicle is pointed. This is actually a better option than the current generation of VR for some types of simulation games because the higher resolution provided by a large 1080p or especially 1440p monitor is superior to what you experience in VR. Also, depth perception through binocular vision is not very important in many simulation games since most of your engagements happen at distances outside of where binocular vision is really impactful in gauging depth.

The drawback is that TrackIR is not useful with games developed specifically for VR and has a limited list of non-VR games that it can be used with. The upside is that TrackIR does not itself require a powerful computer, so if you can run your TrackIR supported game on your current PC, you can get full, accurate head tracking for just the cost of the TrackIR.

Final Thoughts

VR offers an interesting conundrum because it is booth a boon and a curse for people with disabilities. In some cases, if you are disabled, it will enable you to virtually do things you may only be able to dream about doing in real life. On the other hand, it is largely predicated on creating an alternate world that is very similar to the real word, with real world problems, particularly around control schemes.

In summary, if you have a truly serious disability or a good reason not to get into VR, such as the current cost, then it makes sense to hold off for now. But if you are feeling like VR may not be for you just because you are disabled or have vision or hearing impairments, don’t sideline yourself unnecessarily. You’ll face some challenges, but you’ll be able to find a way. Most importantly, by joining the community you’ll be an advocate for yourself. Most developers will likely slip simple accommodations into their games and apps for you if you request them whereas they won’t if they don’t hear the need.

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