Work environments are becoming more immersive by using extended reality (XR) technologies. XR technologies include virtual, augmented and mixed reality, all of which provide new ways for people to meet, connect and work in different environments.
While many people focus on physical workplace accessibility, some pay less attention to the accessibility of all-virtual environments and physical spaces augmented with XR content. As the Co-director of the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT), this is a design challenge I think about often.
Recently, I was filming a promotional video in a virtual reality environment. My two colleagues entered via their VR headsets, and I entered via my laptop’s web browser. While navigating to the virtual stage, my avatar became stuck at a low barrier between the stage and the seating. The ways to navigate the barrier were unclear, and my attempts to teleport or jump to the stage did not work. As a result, I made an awkward and slow shuffle along the barrier until I found a break in the virtual construction where I could make my way to the stage.
I have colleagues with sensory, physical and cognitive disabilities who have also experienced similar challenges in virtual environments. In fact, Equal Entry recently published an interview that describes how they addressed environmental barriers in their virtual meeting space using ramps.
When designing immersive environments, we need to consider both the purpose of the environment and how to identify and minimize any environmental accessibility barriers. These considerations will help us to ensure that everyone has more equitable access. This goes beyond the environment’s visual design and includes navigation paths, entrances and exits, functional spaces, task surfaces, social distancing, lighting, audible cues and more. When PEAT developed our Inclusive XR & Hybrid Work Toolkit, we made sure to include language asking employers to consider how meeting attendees would navigate to and enter a virtual meeting space for this very reason.
Examples of Environmental Design Considerations
Below are some examples of environmental design considerations for all-virtual environments and physical spaces where people will experience augmented and mixed reality content.
- Next time you plan to place a virtual 3D object using augmented or mixed reality, consider the structural or task surface where you will place it. Will the object be perceivable amid the glare of sunlight coming from nearby windows? Is there a better way to create surfaces optimized for virtual object integration? Are virtual objects tagged with descriptions that can be read aloud to different users?
- When media objects such as videos or slide presentations are shared in virtual, augmented or mixed reality, make sure they are accessible to everyone. Can the media be placed in the environment so that every participant can view it, including visuals as well as other content such as captions? Again, Equal Entry shares some helpful advice on placing slides with captions that are fully visible to all participants to help you get started.
- How many people will fit in the immersive environment meeting space while still maintaining a comfortable social distance? Will anyone obstruct the view of the person presenting or viewers watching when the meeting is streamed to a different platform? Is there enough space on the virtual stage for all the presenters if multiple people are speaking?
Immersive environments can have a high cost to entry – especially for people with disabilities. If the developers of immersive environments do not consider accessibility, they could exclude people from fully participating in the environment. The next time you set up a meeting or other collaboration in an immersive environment, ask yourself, “Is the environmental design inclusive?” Your attendees will thank you.