Google Researchers Working On VR Accessibility Suite

Virtual reality mainly relies on a user's vision to offer immersive experiences in its current form, but Google wants to change things and allow visually impaired and blind folks the means to have fun experiences in VR. To that end, Daydream Labs is working on a system that would use audio cues of various sorts to help a blind person navigate a virtual room by pointing a motion controller around to figure out where objects are, what they are, and how close they are. In a video showing off the technology, a researcher dons the headset and is visually surrounded by darkness. The blinded researcher then slowly navigates the virtual room using audio cues, and eventually manages to obtain a laser gun and shoot a virtual duck. The experiment sent six researchers through the gauntlet with only audio cues, then sent four of them back through it with vision enabled to see what difference it would make.

This new audio tool uses the same technology behind existing Google accessibility solutions such as TalkBack, but applied in conjunction with VR software. The technology uses room-scale VR, powered by an HTC Vive, to figure out where a user is in a room and what their face and controllers are pointed at. A laser runs from one of the Vive controllers, and the audio label for whatever it touches is read out to the user. When the user locks in on an object by clicking on the touchpad, they'll receive audio cues as they draw closer and closer to the object in question, as well as repetitions of the object's name to help them ensure that they stay on track. This uses Google's own VR Spatial Audio plugin.

Google's continuous efforts to make modern technologies more accessible for everybody have reached into a large variety of fields, helping impaired or disabled people to take care of daily tasks, surf the web, and engage in fun activities. This is one of Google's first major accessibility solutions for VR, though certainly not the first, and is coming along fairly well. While it may be imperfect and threadbare in its current iteration, the company will no doubt refine it over time, and may even open it up to VR developers, allowing them to craft their own experiences around it rather than Google having to patch in support through a separate app or plugin later on.


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