Welcome to another issue of week11y – this one is a VR special!
Resident Evil 4 on the Oculus Quest 2 – which I own, and think is brilliant! – has just had an update, concentrating primarily on accessibility options.
Your waist and chest height parameters are now configurable, making it easier to grab your weapon etc. Someone in the comments said they used to have to duck to walk through doors, despite not being particularly tall!
The colour of the laser sight can now be adjusted according to your preferences.
Finally, the protagonist can now be “steered using hand movements, which can be assigned to either the left or right controller”.
Spatial offers multiple ways to participate, including using a VR headset, a mobile app, or joining via the browser. Joining from the latter, you can navigate the environment using WASD keys.
Spatial supports automatic captions, but it is a ‘pro’ feature and costs extra to enable. The company are apparently passing on costs from Microsoft, who charge for Azure captioning technology. Meryl hopes that the two companies can reach an agreement without burdening users with extra costs, as accessibility should be built in, not a paid extra.
The captions themselves have quirks: when Meryl enabled them, they were captioning what she was saying, not just what other people are saying. The captions can also be hard to see, with sometimes poor contrast and no way of customising them. And one of the speakers could not get their captions to work, at all – down to some unspecified macOS issue.
Some things worked quite well. For users who found movement from other peoples’ avatars distracting from the main presentation, they were able to switch to ‘object view’ to see only the presentation and nothing else.
Auto avatar creation, from a user’s photo, worked well, and avatars were recognisable representations of their real world counterparts. Users could also stream their webcams above their avatars’ heads, which helped show they were paying attention.
Meryl felt the lack of chat box functionality was a real barrier for people, who had to resort to posting virtual ‘sticky notes’ to communicate. These were buggy and hard to read.
After sharing the world on Twitter (where you can see a video of the world in action), the developer received positive feedback and requests from many people to have him simulate other eye conditions such as astigmatism, presbyopia and colour blindness. He added those features within a month of the first release.
You can tune the settings to match your own vision, and any friends who have joined the world with you will be able to see how you see the world!
Jesse Anderson, who runs IllegallySighted on YouTube, shares advice for creating accessible virtual reality experiences. He reviews games from his perspective as a blind person. There are games designed specifically for screen reader users, but these tend to be more simplistic and don’t hold his attention for long. Jesse mainly reviews mainstream games, which are becoming increasingly accessible. Third-party mods make other games accessible, such as Stardew Access for Stardew Valley.
One title Jesse is particularly impressed with is The Last of Us Part II, for its 60+ accessibility options, making it fully playable end to end by a blind person, even on higher difficulty settings. Highlights include menu narration, high contrast mode toggle, a built-in magnifier, and the navigation system.
Jesse spends most of this interview talking about challenges in VR. There are currently no commercially available accessibility tools for adding things like screen magnifier, screen reader, or high contrast to a VR dashboard or game interface. Jesse notes that “there was an amazing accessibility suite called SeeingVR, developed as a research project by Microsoft, but it never left the research stage”.
It’s these text and user interfaces that present the biggest trouble for Jesse, more so than the ‘game’ elements such as aiming and shooting a weapon. Even accessing the accessibility settings to make games more playable can be an impossible task because the menus themselves are inaccessible.
Jesse joined XR Access in 2020. It is an organisation “devoted to improving the accessibility of both virtual and augmented reality”, with several working groups dedicated to different accessibility requirements. One group focusses on the business case for XR, while another concentrates on development standards. It is in the process of developing resources and prototypes that developers can use when they are trying to figure out how to make their apps more accessible.
The top things Jesse recommends developers include in their VR experiences are: different text size options, magnification and menu narration features, and most importantly, offering all 6 degrees of tracking, so that if a user needs to get closer to something in the environment to see it properly, they can simply lean in or move closer to it.
Like the web, Jesse suggests that the platform itself needs to provide a standard base level of accessibility, such as a system wide screen reader. Unfortunately, existing screen readers aren’t compatible with the games themselves, which are powered by Unreal and Unity.
Further reading/watching: Virtual Reality in the Dark: VR Development for People Who Are Blind.
Meryl Evans talks about ‘comfort ratings’ for VR experiences. These are like content ratings for films and games, e.g. “PG” for “Parental Guidance”.
Meta’s comfort ratings (for headsets such as Oculus) are as follows:
- Comfortable – appropriate for most people. Generally no camera movement or player motion.
- Moderate – appropriate for many. Might incorporate some camera movement or player motion.
- Intense – not appropriate for many. Incorporates significant camera movement, player motion or disorientating content and effects.
- Unrated – the developer hasn’t set a rating.
The Oculus app store lacks a filter facility, so you can’t search by comfort rating. Worse, Steam’s VR app store does not yet have a concept of comfort ratings.
Meryl calls for a standardised system across all VR platforms, moderated by a neutral third party such as Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). It should not be left to developers to decide; their motivation to broaden the potential audience and sales by falsely marketing their experience as ‘Comfortable’ is a conflict of interest.
Meryl finishes with a call to action for several organisations, including a request for headset platforms to build in a “reduced motion” mode.
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