For the past year, Lori Landay has worked on using virtual and augmented reality to help people on the autism spectrum tackle challenging experiences like socialization and stage fright. She and her team also worked on ways to make VR itself more accommodating for players with sensitivities to light, sound, and other environmental factors. In a Game Developers Conference panel on Monday, Landay explained how designing for accessibility can make VR enjoyable for everyone.
Landay is a professor of visual culture and new media at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and she began studying what she calls “virtual subjectivity” over 10 years ago. She initially researched Second Life, specifically the way different players could have personalized experiences. For instance, two avatars might share the same virtual space, but each player might have different settings or view the scene from a different camera angle. She applied the concept of having customizable experiences to VR and AR.
Her panel “Dialed-Down Design: Insights from Developing VR for People with Autism” kicked off with a clip from Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, specifically the iconic “these go to 11” scene in which the character Nigel Tufnel shows off a volume dial that exceeds the usual maximum setting of 10.
“It would be good to have dials on a lot of things. It would be good to have ways to dial up and down,” said Landay. “Of different kinds of lighting, of different kinds of spaces — very large or small — different kinds of sounds, different levels of sound, different kinds of colors, movements. So this is some of what we’ve been thinking about in this project. It makes me think that XR, whatever combination of augmented and virtual reality experiences, that we move into can be a medium where people can customize their experiences.”
The Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs focuses on providing metaphorical dials. Boston Conservatory professor Rhoda Bernard started the program at first to provide music education for college students who are on the autism spectrum. People with this developmental disorder can have trouble with social interaction, picking up emotional cues, and sensitivity to loud noises. The program eventually expanded to children who suffer from other disorders, such as anxiety.
Landay says that their program is trying to “bridge that gap between neurotypicality and neurodiversity.” But this is a challenging task. Autism alone presents a wide variety of characteristics, and every person with it experiences it differently. Landay suggests a few ideas that developers can consider to begin to address such a diverse group of users.
One idea is to guide the players’ attention by cutting out extraneous sensory information so that they can have a more focused experience. She encourages developers to borrow from architecture and think more about how they’re constructing virtual spaces, because that can impact how willing players are to engage with the world.
Landay says that some folks have pointed out that, rather than “dialing down” a VR game or app to suit autistic players’ needs, VR can actually desensitize them and help them acclimate partly to real-world situations where they might encounter sensory overload. She says both approaches are valid, but that these design ideas could help developers create experiences that will be comfortable for folks who may be averse to new mediums like virtual reality.
“Really consider the sensory load that you’re providing,” said Landay. “Sometimes we want to amp things up, dial things up to 11, but that can be really overwhelming. Always ask why, why is this so bright? And if you want them that way, maybe there’s a version that’s more sensory friendly.”