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Virtual Reality and Disability


The Consumer Electronics Show: Is Virtual Reality a Thing of the Future?

I’ve recently been reading about the Consumer Electronics Show, an event that took place in Las Vegas very recently. In 2014, the hype for new technology was geared towards wearables (see my previous blog if you want to find out more!). However, there is a new wave of interest for something called Virtual Reality, which featured heavily at the 2015 event. I decided to give my take on what VR is, what it isn’t – and whether it has the potential to help disabled people either now or in the near future.

What is Virtual Reality?

The BBC wrote an article explaining that Virtual Reality could be the latest in technology to wet our appetites in 2015 and I for one cannot wait! Clever software is used to generate two images of an environment which when viewed through a special headset create the illusion that you are actually in that environment. Virtual Reality headsets made by various companies are now being trialled but the Oculus Rift is the most well known. One idea of Virtual Reality is to make videogames more realistic for the player by giving them as immersive experience as possible.

An example of this is the Virtuix, which pairs an Oculus headset with a treadmill and harness with the view to giving people, in particular gamers, an ‘in the game’ experience. Sounds great to me, but I wonder how accessible it is and if the experience could help disabled gamers?

What’s In It For Us?

Whilst Virtual Reality headsets sound like an amazing possibility, it got me thinking about how they could help disabled people – or not! For those with sensory disabilities, such as loss of hearing or vision, Virtual Reality headsets could potentially revolutionise the gaming experience. This would of course depend both on the amount and type of feedback that could be transmitted through the headset. For example, for a visually impaired or blind person, if they cannot see when they’ve hit an object, if the headset vibrated or beeped audibly when getting closer to objects, this could be a great help to enhancing the game. Vibrations could help people who are deaf or have limited hearing too, as if they cannot hear the sounds of gunshots within a war game for example, they would be able to feel the vibrations (and also see on the screen), but it would give an experience that was on a level playing field with people who were not deaf or had hearing loss. The person would be feeling and seeing at the same time, just as a person with a visual impairment would be hearing and feeling at the same time. This way, players with sensory disabilities would be on a more level playing field with their able-bodied peers.

In addition, the Virtual Reality headsets could help those with limited movement. For example, if the player does not have enough dexterity to use a controller, they could use only the headset to play the game, provided that there were not any other hand-held devices needed. Also, there is potential for the headset to incorporate audio control into the game, where voice commands are used instead of controls to operate gameplay, (by saying ‘jump, run, fly’ etc.). This could be a great opportunity for gaming to be more accessible for many different people with many specific needs.

So What’s The Catch?

The BBC reports that Stuart Miles, founder of gadget news site Pocket-Lint, said that:

“Last year lots of people were using Google’s Glass to show what was possible, but they didn’t know why they were using it…This year the same was true of VR.” Without the knowledge of how to use the technology or the reasons for its use, it is very difficult to predict how long it will take for virtual reality headsets to become the ‘norm.’ In addition to this, analyst Piers Harding-Rolls says that the movement will continue to stay an independent one for the time being. His reasoning being that: ‘”A lot of people that have tested the current headsets, a good proportion of them have not enjoyed the experience…It can make them feel woozy and sick, and the manufacturers really have to overcome that.’ No-one wants to feel ill when gaming, so hopefully this can be worked around!

Whilst this information is disappointing, many hurdles have been overcome within the realms of technology already. I’m sure it won’t be long before Virtual Reality headsets are a prime feature within most videogames. It would be good if those manufacturers thought of the potentially life-changing benefits that could be given to disabled gamers. We are still quite a way off Virtual Reality headsets pushing into the mainstream; however, when it does, I hope to be one of the first to try one out!


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