Fresh Takes — 01 September 2017

 

Last year, I wrote about disability and video games. Over the summer, I realized I had totally ignored an important genre of video games, even though it’s an up and coming one: Virtual Reality.

After several false starts over the decades (there were pretty primitive attempts back in the 1990s – I’m looking at you, Nintendo’s Virtual Boy,) VR has finally started to get a foothold. According to Fortune, consumers spent $5.1 billion on virtual reality gaming hardware in 2016, and since both the Oculus Rift and its rival, the HTC Vive have had recent price cuts (Facebook cut the price for the Oculus Rift down to $399 during a six-week sale, and the HTC Vive now costs $599,) it’s not completely unreasonable to assume the systems will continue to gain  fanbases.

When I heard about products like “Everest VR” for the Oculus Rift, which allows the user to climb the mountain virtually, my first thought was “VR should be perfect for the disabled.” Navigation didn’t look it’d be a problem – typically, the user “teleports” around.

Also, let’s be honest. The idea of a virtual vacation sounds fun – deciding to visit London for an hour on the fly without jet lag? Count me in.

The problem? A design flaw in some major brand VR headsets. During one of his videos, the YouTuber known as Jacksepticeye commented how some VR games have calibration issues with either people seated or who are short. “Accessibility” alarm bells started going off in my head almost immediately, because a lot of the disabled community – at least the physically disabled – are below average height.

This limitation reminded me of the frustration I felt with the Nintendo Wii. The Wii only sort of worked for me. Bowling, ping-pong and archery worked great, but if I needed to move around, I ran into problems pretty quickly. Even standard exercise games were made for the able-bodied, with no customizable options for wheelchair users. Needless to say, the Wii ended up in a box under my desk at home.

Thankfully, according to Dominic Brennan’s article “Developer makes VR accessible to physically disabled with custom locomotion driver” on RoadtoVR, there’s a new driver for SteamVR which is “designed to assist physical movement in a VR by moving or even resizing the virtual space relative to the user.”

In WalkinVR, the user still employs teleportation as a means of navigation, as is the norm in VR, but that’s not what it aims to fix. Picking up dropped items used to be a problem for wheelchair users. No more … allegedly. So, yes, the technology’s evolving – and rapidly.

Hopefully, other companies will come up with something to compete with WalkinVR, and inclusivity in video games will be totally here. Virtual Reality is something that could and should be used as a tool for the disabled – or even the able-bodied.

A VR wheelchair simulator: something that gives a curious able bodied person a small idea of what life can be like for the disabled would be great. If you can perform a heart transplant in space in VR, I can’t see why a wheelchair sim can’t be done. In fact, it has. I found a video from 2013 on YouTube where a couple of university students had developed one.

There’s a ton more I could say about the subject, but I’ll leave it here for now. I’ll just say if developers can work past these bumps in the road, I think there’s a lot of promise for VR being a huge tool for the disabled, and really, for society as a whole.

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Rachel Hanna

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