Accessibility in immersive tech - part 1

I’ve been researching accessibility for immersive technology with the aim to create a heuristic approach for accessibility testing. It’s taking a lot longer than I predicted, and contains a lot more content. So rather waiting to share the finished product in a large un-readable format, I thought I’d start sharing smaller pieces periodically starting with an introduction to why you should be interested...

Why you should care about accessibility for Immersive tech

Immersive realities have huge potential to change many aspects of our life and let us experience things with a degree of “presence” that has not previously been possible. They can take us to places not normally possible to visit, or experience hazardous situations without danger. The immersive nature of the technology can trick the brain into believing that we are really there. It has even been shown that people can adapt to embody forms that they are not naturally built to do such as becoming a bird or learning to control extra body parts such as a tail.

Person operating birdly experience by flapping arms
Somniacs’ Birdly demonstrates the value of embodiment in VR and is “accessible to anyone who has use of their arms and hands and is not visually impaired” [Imagine source: Engadget]

Whilst these developments are incredibly empowering they often assume the user is fully able bodied both physically and mentally.  There are potential improvements and opportunities being missed by neglecting the inclusion of accessible features which could make these experiences open to all and useful in more situations (such as VR as therapy).

Seven reasons why accessibility is important for your VR project


Accessibility is not binary, with people having either having a need or not.  Individual abilities vary across a large range and can be temporary or situation.  
Page from inclusive toolkit showing icons of people with accessibility needs
[Image source: Microsoft’s Inclusive toolkit]

Microsoft’s inclusive toolkit manual talks about disability as mismatched human interactions, placing the responsibility on the artefact rather than the individual.
Furthermore, accessibility needs can be: educational, cultural, economic, linguistic or generational.  Are you restricting your experience to a particular demographic (fully-able, English speaking, technologically proficient and high socio-economic status) and therefore limiting the audience in an industry that’s already struggling with adoption?


In New Zealand, approximately 24% of the population are identified as disabled with similar figures in other countries. As the population ages the percentage of disability is only likely to increase.

Similar results were found in a 2008 survey targeted at “casual gamers” which found that 20.5% self-identified as having some form of disability.  Of these, over 10% had had casual gaming prescribed for them.

Failure to provide adequate accessibility for your experience means missing out on a large potential revenue stream.
Person in wheelchair and VR headset reaching down to floor
Approximately 1 in 5 gamers self-identify as having a disability
[Image source: Road to VR]


It is well documented that improvements to accessibility will also improve usability for both disabled and non-disabled users.  Elements such as: more readable text, improved contrast and clear consistent design add to the user experience for all users.  Improved usability relates to a better user experience and can result in more frequent and longer usage.

Game menu showing accessibility options
The Psychedelic settings on Holodance present plenty of configurable options

Many design suggestions for improving accessibility in VR are about giving the user options:
  • Controller options
  • Game speed
  • Sensory input/output
  • Configuration
  • Scale
  • Special effects
  • Complexity
Accessibility is not necessarily about adding or removing features, but enabling the choice to use different features or scale them to better suit the user need (or style).


By allowing the user to configure the application controls to their particular requirements you are going to enable them to have the optimal experience for them.

Adding functionality that maybe essential for people with certain disabilities can add to the immersion of other users too, for example:

  • Adding haptic feedback to an experience (to accommodate those with hearing impairment) may add to overall immersion for all.
  • Adding voice commands (for those with limited motion control) may be more realistic than a text based alternative (e.g. giving commands in a game)
Arguably some accessibility changes may seem unrealistic and reduce immersion for the majority of users (e.g. slowing the game speed or removing certain special effects), but they don’t need to be universal. Changes can be optional or configurable in the menus in the same way that games often allow effect throttling for different hardware specifications.

Maybe consider having a “Comfort mode”.

Legislation and litigation

Although there is currently no VR specific legislation, there are certainly parallels with web accessibility that it could be argued set a precedence for accessibility in VR. The United Nations International agreement on the rights of disabled people states that “Disabled people have the same rights to be included in society as anybody else ...should have equal opportunities …equal access”.

Failure to provide accessibility opens up an organisation to the risk of litigation. Experiences from web accessibility litigation shows how expensive this can be for organisations as Target discovered.


With good accessibility comes the need to provide the user with options around control, often including the use of third party or custom interfaces. Providing this capability to scale effects or turn on/off certain features opens up the opportunity for using an application in more ways and across more devices, including those that may not be able to cope with the full features of a high specification headset.
Some of the many headset options 
[Image source: ezonetoday


Providing good accessibility is morally the right thing to do, but sometimes it’s hard to justify additional time or resources. But there are other, pragmatic reasons for inclusive design:
Improved accessibility can be seen as a primary aspect of Corporate Social Responsibility impacting on the public perception of an organisation.

Experiences that provide a good accessible experience are often recommended to others with disabilities leading to greater sales and usage.

InnovationAs teams consider how to overcome accessibility issues they are forced to think creatively and this in itself helps to produce new ideas in both design and development that contribute to a better product.

"When we design for disability first, you often stumble upon solutions that are better than those when we design for the norm." Elise Roy
“Sometimes those other things are the innovations” Bryce Johnson, Microsoft Inclusive Technologies Lab.

Return on investment

Cost is always a factor when deciding what to prioritise, but accessibility needn’t be a major expense. Many accessibility issues have already been solved. There are online resources to assist in this, Valve has recently released a new feature to enable different input sources, Google are working on features to improve accessibility for the visually impaired and the development community has various tools to assist with accessibility improvement such as the Colour Blindness Simulator and Walk in VR.

It may cost a little more time to design and develop solutions the first around (or search for an answer online), but once solved the solution can often be implemented in subsequent experiences providing an even greater return on investment.


Accessibility shouldn’t be thought of as something to be avoided due to lack of time or budget, or something that is only relevant to a specific group. Accessibility is an opportunity to improve quality for all, increase your user base and generate additional financial return. Potentially improving people’s lives is certainly a bonus.

For those interested in finding out more or implementing some successful solutions, check out these great resources: the Game accessibility guidelines (not exclusively VR) and “Resources: Virtual and Augmented Reality Accessibility” both of which are living documents, so worth returning to.

Also if you're feeling charitable, consider supporting Able Gamers, you can even support them through humble bundle and score yourself some goodies at the same time :)

Next time, I’ll start with some pointers for accessibility testing immersive technology.

Part two...