Researchers Seek Next Generation of VR for Gamers with Disabilities

Reprinted from UTSA Today Article

Eric Nave, a student in UTSA’s Department of Computer Science, and John Quarles, computer science professor and director of the San Antonio Virtual Environments Lab at UTSA, have launched the first worldwide Accessibility VR Game Jam.

The project’s mission is to raise awareness and educate future game industry professionals about the need for making virtual reality gaming entertainment accessible to gamers with disabilities. But as the project’s inaugural competition approached, the UTSA team hit a major obstacle: the COVID-19 pandemic. So they worked to quickly migrate the game jam to an online-only environment.

Quarles shared the lessons his team learned in the process and about the future direction virtual reality needs to take to be more inclusive.

You organized the nation’s first Accessibility VR Game Jam. Can you describe the event?

This is an open competition where teams of computer programmers, artists and sound engineers created accessible VR games in 48 hours. We provided the perspective of a gamer in need of adaptive/accessible games as the focus topic for the jam. Jammers didn’t know what disabilities the gamer had until the start of the actual competition.

Can you describe an example of how the electronic game industry needs to be accessible or more adaptive for a person with disabilities?

Many people with disabilities have a strong desire to play VR games, but they cannot play them due to physical or cognitive barriers introduced by the interface design. Many of these barriers could be broken with some minor changes—for example, enabling one-handed mode for games that currently require both hands.

What were the challenges that the participants faced?

We gave the gamers the added challenge to develop the game’s software for a fictional user called Johnny Boy who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. This disease causes Johnny Boy to have minimal motor control, which makes him use a motorized wheelchair to move around. His chair can raise and lower if need be. Also to make it extra challenging, Johnny Boy gets tired easily and his head moves barely left and right by only 30 degrees.

Which was the VR game that took the top prize?

The top winner was a game called Intrepid Intents. The player can be seated and can play with two or one motion controllers. There is the option to manipulate the game using your gaze as an alternative. Also, the analogue sticks’ movement or teleport function can be optimized for positions. Button presses are also not required but can be used to speed up selections.

Historically, game jams involve strong face-to-face collaboration between teammates. However, with COVID-19 you had to convince participants to organize and develop a game while working remotely. What surprised you the most about the participants’ ability to adapt?

Communication and collaboration is hard online. It is hard enough to do this in person, especially when designing physical interactions for VR games. However, you could tell that some teams really took the time to think and plan potential accessibility solutions for VR, regardless of the limitations of online collaborative work.

Why should the electronic game industry pay attention to UTSA’s first Accessibility Virtual Reality Game Jam efforts?

There are many reasons. For one, this event allowed thinkers from different disciplines to get hands-on training on how to approach problem-solving to find a solution to develop forward-looking VR games and applications. The next generation of VR developers will be required to innovate and this requires addressing needs of as many gamers as possible.

Also you’d be surprised what impacts one “small” group could actually improve the application for the “larger” group. If we include disability gamers and their needs in the development conversation, we may actually have better games overall.

You also opened the game jam to include artists from UTSA’s Department of Music. Why?

Good games can elicit emotional response from the player. Music and art is a huge part of that. Game innovation requires a diverse set of skills and a multidisciplinary team. For this reason the game jam also gave artists and sound engineers the ability to transfer their education to different industries beyond the traditional.

We as gamers require more and more sophistication in the games. For this to happen, virtual reality needs to sound and look good as well.

VR Code Jam
“Stairs are always my enemy, but I can fly over them in VR,” said Eric Nave, the UTSA software engineering senior who was co-lead with Quarles on the game jam project to make devices more accessible. “When I first got my Oculus Rift, I couldn’t play many games. I would get stuck on menus saying ‘Reach the start button in front of you.’”