Reality is changing. Extended Reality (XR) technologies, such as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR), immerse users in computer-generated worlds or overlay digital content onto their physical surroundings, blending the real and the virtual.
However, for people with disabilities—including sensory impairments and mobility issues—these technologies pose serious challenges.
Shiri Azenkot, Assistant Professor at Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech, is leading a range of initiatives to ensure that XR will be accessible to all.
XR headsets, such as Microsoft HoloLens, have been around for some time but these technologies are not yet mainstream, said Azenkot. As they gain traction, they will become as commonplace as smartphones. “It’s going to be a shift, a new paradigm in the way we interact with technology.” she said.
Azenkot argues that we need to be proactive, not reactive, in making sure these new technologies are accessible to all. “Let’s not wait until the technology is mainstream and people are already marginalized. Let’s think about it now.”
New Technologies New Challenges
XR raises new questions about accessibility. VR, for example, tricks one’s senses into thinking they’re in another world and the implementation of this is very visual, said Azenkot. “For someone who has a visual impairment, it is completely inaccessible.”
Currently, VR headsets are predominantly used for gaming and watching 360° videos, she said. “But what about in five to seven years, when we have kids at school using VR to learn about STEM concepts or experience news stories about other countries?” Students with sensory impairments will be disadvantaged.
Likewise, XR technologies often involve movement in the real world as users interact with virtual spaces. “Now we need to think about people with mobility disabilities, people whose movement is not typical,” she said.
Accessibility solutions for these challenges do not yet exist as the technologies are still emerging, said Azenkot. In collaboration with partners at Verizon Media, Wheelhouse Group, and Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology (PEAT) she is working to energize industry and academia around the importance of imminently tackling the issue.
This July, the Connected Experiences Lab at Cornell Tech hosted an XR Access symposium. “We wanted to harness the collective energy of everyone out there who is interested, who’s an activist, and who is working in this space,” said Azenkot.
The event attracted a full house of 120 attendees with others signed up on a waiting list. Among the practical outcomes was the establishment of six working groups focused on themes such as awareness, outreach, education, and hardware devices.
Moving forward, these groups will develop practical strategies for implementing accessibility solutions. These include establishing best practices and standards, looking at how designers can produce accessible content, and how enabling features can be incorporated in XR devices.
“We do not want a repeat of what happened with the web, of what happened with smartphones,” said Azenkot. “We want to make sure that these XR technologies will be accessible as they become commonplace consumer devices.”
Building a Movement
Azenkot works closely with her students at Cornell Tech. This summer, interns researched how text descriptions might be used in innovative ways to help people with visual impairments navigate XR environments. For example, by giving overviews of virtual spaces that convey the sense of immersion.
Azenkot points out that current research into XR accessibility is closely related to the area she has been working in for the last five years. “What we’ve been doing is looking at how we can leverage this new technology to solve accessibility problems.”
Her previous projects include looking at how XR can support people with low vision. For example, by using smart glasses to help users find products at grocery stores or AR to help people walk up and down stairs. The two research strands are complementary, she said. Making XR accessible and developing assistive technologies to address the diversity of humans need to go hand-in-hand.
Looking ahead, Azenkot will focus on developing the XR Access initiative, recruiting students to move the research forward and fostering industry collaborations. “We’re trying to start a movement here,” she said. “Now is the time for action.”