The XR Access Initiative is led by the Connected Experiences Lab at Cornell Tech and by Verizon Media. If you have questions, please contact info@xraccess.org.

XR Access Symposium

Symposium Report

 

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Introduction

Virtual, augmented, immersive and mixed reality technologies (XR) are currently on the cusp of mainstream acceptance. These technologies hold the potential to radically impact the lives of all people, in life, work, and play, but many will be left behind if the technology isn’t designed with accessibility in mind. To ensure that the future of this technology considers the needs of people with permanent, temporary, situational, or changing disabilities, Cornell Tech and Verizon Media hosted the first-ever XR Access Symposium July 16, 2019 at the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City.

This inaugural Symposium brought together more than 120 thought leaders from industry, academia, accessibility, and advocacy to create actionable plans to solve the unique accessibility challenges posed by XR. The community met in a series of talks, technology demonstrations, and working sessions to share expertise, raise awareness, identify barriers, and gain commitments that will ensure that future XR technologies are born accessible.

Participants included:

  • Academic institutions such as Cornell University, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon, Gallaudet, New York University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Berkeley, and the University of Barcelona

  •  Industry leaders such as Facebook, Magic Leap, Microsoft, RYOT Studios, and Google

  • People with disabilities: advocates, leaders, technology experts, and users

  • Non-profit groups and government officials

 

Together, we ended the day as a newly united community of practice committed to guiding the ongoing research, development, prototyping, and implementation of accessible XR in the years to come. Our efforts will serve as a template for assuring that whatever emerging technology next impacts our lives is born accessible.

 

Heartfelt thanks go to each of the incredible participants who have committed to delivering on the promise of the digital world to everyone. Please visit XRaccess.org to get involved and to follow the community’s progress.

Symposium Overview

Pre-Symposium Reception at Verizon Media

Keynote: Mike Shebanek, Head of Accessibility, Verizon Media

Mike Shebanek opened the evening with a brief talk about how the most recent paradigm-shifting technology - the iPhone - successfully grew to become one of the most accessible technologies in common use. During his time at Apple, Shebanek led the development of VoiceOver, Apple’s mobile and desktop system for enhancing accessibility for people with disabilities. The lessons learned from his iPhone experiences highlighted the possibilities for making XR technologies accessible as we move forward.

Plenary Talks

Compiled and summarized by Prof. Shiri Azenkot

Five plenary talks by researchers, accessibility advocates, and content creators laid the groundwork for the day’s conversations. The talks are summarized below.

 

Slides for Talks 1, 2, 3, and 5 are available at this link. Chancey Fleet (Talk 4) did not use slides.

Talk 1: XR Access: What Does it Mean?

Richard Ladner, University of Washington

Prof. Ladner began by defining accessibility and inclusive design and posing critical questions for the XR Access movement. Accessible products and services are those that can be used by anyone, including those with disabilities. Accessible products and services use accessible infrastructure across different products and services, such as optical character recognition, technology that converts an image of text to text, speech recognition, and text-to-speech. He concluded with three questions to set the foundation for the day’s work:

  1. What should the XR access infrastructure be?

  2. How do you get designers and developers to use the infrastructure to create accessible design experiences?

  3. What policies and industry incentives are needed to make XR accessible in the future?

Talk 2: XR and Accessibility

Steven Feiner, Columbia University

Prof. Feiner presented an overview of XR technologies, from pioneering XR prototypes developed in the 1960’s through today’s technology and its promise for the future. He began by defining XR, which represents a variety of terms used to describe a range of experiences: augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial reality, mediated reality, etc. Regardless of the term, XR refers to an interactive 3D world of media that is generated and tracked relative to the user. Prof. Feiner described the three main kinds of XR systems: optical see-through, video see-through, and projection. As seen through these categories, XR creators have been focused on the visual aspects of the experience. Prof. Feiner described XR experiences from an audio-focused perspective. For example, an aural hear-through display, as opposed to an optical see-through display, is one that plays virtual 3D sounds without obstructing the user’s hearing. Prof. Feiner concluded by describing several of his lab’s research projects, showing the range of possible XR applications.

Talk 3: SeeingVR: A Set of Tools to Make Virtual Reality More Accessible to People with Low Vision

Yuhang Zhao, Cornell Tech

SeeingVR, developed in collaboration with Microsoft Research, offers a set of tools to make VR applications more accessible to people with low vision. They include a magnifying lens, brightness enhancement, and edge overlays that make a scene more visible. Most of the tools can be applied to an existing application by the user, without requiring the developer to make any changes to the code. SeeingVR is open source, and the code can be accessed at https://github.com/microsoft/SeeingVRtoolkit

Talk 4: Living in an Augmented World

Chancey Fleet, New York Public Library

Fleet described her experiences with (in)accessible products, delineated why change is critical, and envisioned a world of XR technologies that are born accessible. Fleet has been told repeatedly by designers and developers that, “making products accessible was not the focus of their work,” “not a current priority,” or “not within scope.” But, she argued, accessibility matters, as XR technology designed with accessibility in mind can lead to innovations for everyone. For Fleet, reality is already augmented. For example, she relies on applications on her phone to navigate by receiving descriptions of nearby objects and landmarks. She expressed her hope that our imaginations will help lead this journey for both practical ends, and for fun and creativity. She closed with her wish, “to sit on a virtual chair and hear the sounds of virtual birds.”

Talk 5: Movers and Shakers

Glenn Cantave, Movers and Shakers NYC

Cantave is an activist, performance artist, and social entrepreneur who uses XR to highlight narratives of the oppressed. He explained his work illustrating how history is traditionally told from the perspectives of those in power. For example, nearly all monuments in New York City represent white men. Movers and Shakers/NYC seeks to empower oppressed communities--African-American descendants of slaves in particular--through augmented reality experiences, while also closing the digital divide for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds. Among their projects, Cantave described how Movers and Shakers has collaborated with New York City schools to create rooms where students can learn from virtual historical figures from oppressed populations. In parallel to his work, he reflected on the importance of giving people with disabilities a voice and a role in the technology creation process to ensure that XR access is a priority.

Breakout Sessions

Compiled by Jessie Taft based on materials from group note-takers

In the afternoon, Symposium attendees divided into small groups to plan for the future of XR accessibility. Each group tackled a different “how can we…” question, with consideration for specific goals, challenges, and next steps.

Authoring Tools

How can we develop XR authorship tools to support accessibility?

Facilitator: Greg Emerson, Verizon Media

Note-taker: Jaylin Herskovitz, University of Michigan

This group addressed the need to make XR authorship and development tools that can be used to create accessible products, and to make the tools themselves accessible. They identified two core challenges: defining who takes responsibility for making these features available, and how to create authoring tools and standards that work consistently across platforms. The group emphasized core values of simplicity and ease-of-use, and called for community involvement and user testing during the development process by a diversity of users.

Content & Creative

How can content creators help make XR experiences accessible?

Facilitator: Zeina Abi Assy, Tribeca Film Institute

Note-taker: Andres Vargas Gonzalez, University of Central Florida

This group focused on the need to accommodate the full range of possible abilities and disabilities, regardless of a person’s mobility, how much vision they have, how many colors they can see, how much they can hear, or how they process information. Participants noted the need for customizability and personalization of XR technologies and media, and for a democratic process in the creation of accessible content. They emphasized the need to normalize the use of accessibility tools, to reduce stigma and increase adoption.

Definitions & Measurement

How can we define and measure “accessible” in the world of XR?

Facilitator: Alan Brightman, Accessibility pioneer

Note-taker: Brianna Tomlinson, Georgia Tech

New technologies bring the potential to do things differently. This group’s vision focused on moving beyond basic definitions of accessibility and toward definitions that include usability, enjoyment and engagement. They emphasized the need to move away from basic checklists or pass/fail measurements of accessibility and toward iterative and inclusive testing and measurement throughout the design and use process.

 

Devices & Platforms

How can we apply best practices across different XR platforms and devices?

Facilitator: Daniel Denn, Verizon Media

Note-taker: Zachary Bohenick, Michigan State University

Participants emphasized the need for creating cross-platform and cross-device experiences that are fluid, flexible, and adaptable. Similar to other groups, they highlighted the need for better understanding of user needs, and for community and inclusiveness in the design process. They foresee that, without intervention, new technological developments will create challenges in maintaining accessible experiences. The group recommended a focus on creating APIs and other tools that ensure interoperability between technologies.

Education

How can we make XR technologies accessible for educational environments?

Facilitator: Hester Tinti-Kane, XR in Learning

Note-taker: Kaileigh Hermann, Michigan State University

Successful integration of XR into educational environments will require inclusive technology that includes enables personalization, and which can be deployed for both creating and consuming educational content. Many group members raised concern about the expense and potential unequal availability of XR devices and content creation tools. They recommended awareness-raising around education and accessibility, resource sharing, and adaptable practice frameworks for K-12, higher ed, and continuing education environments. 

Frameworks for the Future

How can we create frameworks for making new technologies beyond XR accessible?

Facilitator: Joiwind Ronen, Wheelhouse Group

Note-taker: Joey Dearing, Michigan State University

The group called for industry leaders to consider accessibility as a key component of technology development, as high a priority as privacy and security. They recommended that the community focus on raising awareness and promoting accessibility, with the argument that accessibility benefits everyone. They offered that this approach should focus on increasing interest and empathy among leaders who could make a difference.They proposed creating industry guidelines, best practices, and a centralized repository for accessibility testing, developer training, and capacity-building. 

Image & Video

How can image and video technologies support accessibility in XR?

Facilitator: Phil Puthumana, Verizon Foundation

Note-taker: Ricardo Penuela, Cornell Tech

This group focused on how image and video technologies could create or enhance agency for users. Like other groups, they envision adaptable annotation and image recognition technologies that take a wide range of contexts into account. They emphasized the importance of user-generated content and a focus on winning industry support for community accessibility initiatives.

 

Input Modalities

How can we develop input methods and devices for accessibility in XR?

Facilitator: Justin Herman, Twilio

Note-taker: Aviv Elor, University of California Santa Cruz

The Input Modalities group considered the future of XR input devices and interfaces that are flexible and customizable for all abilities. They proposed industry hardware design guidelines, community development forums and incentives for developing accessible input methods. They recommended the creation of awareness campaigns, awards, and hackathons as immediate next steps.

Mobility

How can we design XR experiences to include people with limited mobility?

Facilitator: Victoria McCullough, Verizon Media

Note-taker: Ossama Ali, Michigan State University

The Mobility group outlined the need for controllers, diverse avatars, and XR systems that can be set up without outside assistance, and which allow people of all abilities to experience XR fully. They emphasized the challenges of cross-platform compatibility of mobility solutions and the need for industry guidelines addressing a wide variety of mobilities. Like other groups, they emphasized the integral need for involving people with mobility impairments at all levels of the design process.

Sensation & Cognition

How can we make XR accessible to people with sensory or cognitive differences?

Facilitator: Samantha Soloway, Verizon Media

Note-taker: Elena Bulthuis, Michigan State University

The Sensation & Cognition group focused on the need to create meaningful and equivalent experiences that provide flexibility for all five senses and multiple modalities of input. Their goals include enhancing research on user experience best practices and creating standardized XR system setup flows that allow input selection. They noted the need for education and awareness-raising among developers and designers, including engagement with users with different sensory and cognitive preferences.

 

Sound & Haptic Technologies

How can we develop sound and haptic I/O technologies to support accessibility in XR?

Facilitator: Sukriti Chadha, Verizon Media

Note-taker: Ocean Hurd, University of California Santa Cruz

 Successful XR technologies must relay and receive information through multimodal methods in the most intuitive way possible. The group considered challenges such as affordability of audio and haptic devices and the lack of programming languages and standard practices for these communication modalities. They also explored the difficulties of the trade-off between the need for data sharing in building new technology versus the privacy concerns of people with disabilities.

Standards & Policy

How can we develop standards and policies around XR accessibility?

Facilitator: Judy Brewer, World Wide Web Consortium

Note-taker: Anjelika Amog, Cornell Tech

The Standards & Policy group’s priorities were to promote frameworks that are agile, born accessible, and empowering for users. They reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of existing technology accessibility standards, including requirements and success criteria. They recommended the incorporation of accessibility and community values into design processes, and that the community work to build industry expectations that XR be born accessible, rather than something considered post-development.

Priority Considerations

While their topics varied, many of the breakout groups arrived at common themes during their discussions. The following overarching ideas and challenges can guide us toward a more accessible future.

Community Involvement 

Nearly every group emphasized the need for people with disabilities to lead the processes of innovation, design, development, and testing of new XR technologies. The labor-intensive nature of some accessibility-related tasks such as annotation will require large-scale community efforts to make them possible. Inclusive and democratic practices must ensure that all users are empowered and all voices are heard.

Flexibility, Adaptability, Customizability

Participants agreed that new technologies must be usable for as many people as possible. Software tools must be easily adaptable to different contexts and platforms, allow fine-grained preference-setting capability, and give users the ability to modify hardware or software to accommodate their needs. In addition to maximizing accessibility for a broad range of different abilities and preferences, flexibility in the design of accessible technologies allows adaptation to new platforms and innovations as they emerge.

Creation and Consumption

While many accessibility solutions are aimed at end users of a technology, tools used to create software and media must also be accessible and empowering for people with disabilities. Intentional consideration of accessibility features within development platforms can simultaneously make content creation and consumption easier.

Compatibility Across Platforms and Media

Many groups expressed concern that innovations in accessible technologies would target certain development platforms or devices while leaving others behind. They stressed the need for careful consideration of the tradeoffs between proprietary technologies and universal use, with an eye toward ensuring that users benefit from accessibility features regardless of their platform choice. System interaction frameworks like APIs can help incorporate accessibility features across platforms, and adopting open-source standards will promote interoperability.

Awareness and Education

Participants throughout the day raised the need for education and awareness-raising among companies, designers, developers, and users without disabilities. Lack of awareness of the benefits of accessible technology exacerbates stigma against people who use those technologies. It also stymies the sense of urgency that promotes innovation in accessibility. Normalizing the use of accessible technologies makes their creation a necessity rather than an afterthought, and drives home the point that accessibility benefits everyone.

Research and Testing

Participants called for action to drive better understanding of diverse user needs. They recommended additional research into user preferences, with both quantitative and qualitative data informing improved accessible designs. In particular, they stressed the need for incorporating testing mechanisms into content creation and software tools that are used from the start.

Resources and Networks

Several groups noted the lack of resources available to those interested in developing accessible XR technologies. Informational resources are scarce or scattered, suggesting the need for a centralized repository for software, tools and information. XR devices and software and related development, research and education around these tools are often cost-prohibitive. Participants proposed grant-making and incubator programs organized by non-profit groups, supported by universities and industry leaders. These centralized programs would also promote communication among stakeholders interested in promoting accessibility in XR.

Standards and Best Practices 

Participants agreed that the most urgent next step in the XR Access agenda is developing unified best practices for how to make XR technologies accessible. These guidelines would build on successful frameworks for the web, games, and other technologies while incorporating considerations unique to XR.


 

Summary

The present moment represents an opportunity for powerful and lasting change. We will include new voices in the conversation around XR and accessibility and change the conversation from one of tolerating difference to one of celebrating diversity. We will rethink the way we design not just XR devices, software, and media, but how we design new technologies more broadly. We will shift away from compliance mindsets and toward prioritization for multi-faceted, flexible techniques that put people first. We have an opportunity to be creative, ask new questions, share knowledge, expand our horizons and empower the true potential of technology to improve and enrich lives, limited only by our imaginations. 

 

Participants in the XR Access Symposium represented a diversity of backgrounds, interests, abilities, and industries, and we share a commitment to making change happen.