Conceptually, virtual reality headsets present a fantastic opportunity to aid users with low vision: Up-close screens with high contrast and personally calibrated lenses could enable people to see details that might be missed in the real world. But as VR software isn’t generally optimized for low-vision users, Microsoft researchers are previewing a solution called SeeingVR, a set of tools that easily enable Unity app and game developers to add accessibility features.

The SeeingVR tools include all sorts of individual effects, ranging from brightness, contrast, and edge enhancement options to traditional magnification and window pane-like bifocal features. Developers can also highlight objects, create visual guidelines, and recolor scenes specifically to enhance them for low vision users; text can be visually augmented, turned into speech, or used to describe selected objects.

Above: The full range of Microsoft’s SeeingVR tools.

Image Credit: Microsoft

While the enhancement and selection tools will be familiar to users of other platforms’ operating system-level accessibility tools, there are a few others that are fairly unique to Microsoft or SeeingVR. One is a depth measurement tool that helps users with poor sight in one eye gauge distance; another deliberately creates more focused tunnel vision with “peripheral remapping.” There’s even a “Seeing AI” feature that attempts to deduce and describe what’s in the field of view, absent a developer description — though adding descriptions is also an option.

Most of the tools require no special recoding by Unity app developers, and can be turned on or off like filters, either alone or in combination with one another. But some do require modest app updates for proper support. Microsoft suggests that small-scale testing showed that low-vision users were able to complete tasks more quickly and accurately with their choice of activated SeeingVR tools than without them.

SeeingVR will be formally presented next month alongside a research paper at the CHI 2019 conference in Scotland. The researchers will also discuss opportunities to improve accessibility of web content for dyslexic users, particularly through web browsers’ existing “reading modes,” as well as options that make both VR and non-VR educational content accessible to users who are completely blind.