Skip to Content

Digital Accessibility

Accessibility in Virtual Environments

Virtual reality is a constantly developing and growing industry. Recently, Meta (the company of Facebook and Instagram) released the Meta Quest 3 and even Apple released their own headset called the Apple Vision Pro. Virtual reality offers innovative experiences that cannot be had anywhere else. Because of this, many schools have started implementing virtual reality into their curriculum. The University of South Carolina also has many faculty members including virtual reality in their courses. For example, a management class at the Darla Moore School of Business uses virtual reality experiences to teach empathy by putting the students in the shoes of people with various struggles. An East Asian history class has used virtual reality to give students the opportunity to walk through a real museum located on the other side of the world. Because virtual reality (VR) technology is so new, there are always new ideas that people are producing and discussing; however, there are also new issues that people are discovering. One major topic that is not well researched or documented is accessibility in virtual environments.

No student at the University of South Carolina should be left behind because of a lack of accessibility.

Joshua Ludlam

I work at the Center for Teaching Excellence as the virtual environments assistant. Our virtual environments initiative strives to help faculty around the school implement VR. We talk with faculty members around USC who use virtual reality in monthly virtual environments community of practice meetings. One issue that came up frequently in those meetings was accessibility. Many faculty members wished there were a guide they could go to for VR accessibility, but none seemed to exist. One of the first tasks I gave myself as the virtual environments assistant was to create an accessibility guide for faculty. The guide is currently on the Center for Teaching Excellence website. It covers both the benefits and issues of VR in terms of accessibility, and I am always thinking about ways it can be updated.

As of right now, there are four areas we look for accessibility in VR. These are mobility, visual, auditory, and cognitive. VR offers a multitude of benefits and potential issues in each area. For mobility, VR allows people to visit places or participate in activities that may not be physically feasible for them in real life. Last semester, I talked to an individual who suffered from multiple sclerosis. She loves to ride her motorcycle, but her diagnosis prevented her from doing this. When she contacted me, she had recently bought a VR headset, and I helped her figure out ways she could do this activity in VR. One issue she had, however, was the use of controllers. VR headsets tend to overemphasize the use of motion controls, and many people find it difficult to use them. There are a lot of buttons to memorize, and interactions must be precise. Thankfully, there are solutions and workarounds, but they are not obvious. I compiled a list of resources in the guide to help alleviate this issue. In each area of accessibility, there are so many examples of benefits and issues that VR has. Apart from these, the guide also explains miscellaneous benefits and issues such as preventing motion sickness and using VR for stroke rehabilitation.

Virtual reality also is great at teaching others about accessibility. For instance, I worked with a professor in the nursing school to create a 360-video highlighting the day in the life of a patient who uses a wheelchair. Nursing students then used VR headsets to experience it from the point-of-view of the patient. Virtual reality can literally put you in someone else’s shoes. While researching this topic, I discovered a research consortium called XR Access with the goal of making XR (virtual reality and augmented reality) inclusive for all regardless of accessibility. The community behind XR Access has done more research and made more resources than I could ever hope to do. As virtual reality grows at the University of South Carolina, hopefully more of the resources from XR Access can be implemented.

Virtual reality is a growing technology at our school, and there are no signs of it stopping. Because of this, more attention is needed for virtual environments accessibility. No student at the University of South Carolina should be left behind because of a lack of accessibility.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.