<title-serif>Finding ways to make AR, VR, and AI-driven experiences<title-serif><title-sans> more accessible<title-sans>
With the rise of AR, VR, and AI-driven multi-sensory experiences come new challenges — and opportunities — for accessibility, inviting us all to make this next chapter of the internet even more inclusive.
To reach as many people as possible online, accessibility can’t be just a feature, but must be an integral component of design and development. With emerging environments like Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and even the Metaverse, the web’s approach to accessibility needs to evolve alongside these technologies. Classic standards, like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), form a reliable foundation, but they don't fully encapsulate the breadth and depth of these new experiences.
This puts today’s designers and developers in a unique position to shape the next frontier. While interfaces and underlying technologies are likely to change, here are five ways to adapt traditional accessibility practices to these new environments.
1. Embrace Universal Design
Universal Design is all about inclusivity, a principle that becomes even more crucial in immersive environments. It means creating an experience that's usable by the widest possible audience, irrespective of their abilities or disabilities. Critically, it's not just about complying with standards, but fostering a sense of belonging.
In practice, this might mean considering how someone with a limb difference can interact with an environment without a handheld controller or how to use AI to help a non-seeing user navigate the Metaverse with non-visual cues. Start with the belief that every user, regardless of their circumstance, has the right to enjoy the experience, and let that guide decision-making.
2. Provide input flexibility
AR and VR experiences are immersive by nature, but the method of immersion shouldn't be a barrier. Not all users can use standard input methods like headsets or controllers. Offering alternative ways to interact with the environment, like voice commands or eye-tracking, can make platforms accessible to a broader audience.
Remember, flexibility is key. Designing an adaptable interface that supports multiple input methods will ensure a more inclusive experience.
3. Prioritize captioning and transcription
Communication is central to user experience, and in immersive environments, it often comes in the form of audio. For non-hearing users, this could leave them feeling excluded.
To combat this, always provide text alternatives for audio content — something more easily accomplished than ever before with the help of AI tools. Real-time captions and transcriptions integrated seamlessly into the user's field of view can ensure that everyone remains part of the conversation.
4. Emphasize Customizability
A critical aspect of accessible design is allowing users to tailor their experience to their needs. And in AR and VR environments, one size doesn't fit all.
Give users the freedom to adjust settings like text size, contrast levels, audio volume, or speed of animations. Going a step further, users could also be allowed to modify the user interface or controls. This level of customization ensures an environment that is truly centered around the user.
5. Mind the Cognitive Load
Immersive environments can be incredibly stimulating. While that's part of their attraction, it can be overwhelming for some users, particularly those who are neurodiverse.
Strive to design environments with clarity in mind: Clear instructions, a logical layout, and control over the pace of interactions can all contribute to a more manageable cognitive load.
The future of the web offers so much potential, with AR and VR enabling a whole new level of immersion. As designers and developers venture into these new domains, carrying the principles of accessibility forward should be about more than just compliance with guidelines, but rather championing a spirit of inclusivity.
What accessibility means in these environments will grow and change, just as the technologies themselves will. But by considering inclusion from the outset, it increases the chances that these new immersive experiences are not only innovative and engaging but also truly available to all.