AR and sight loss – can you ever get accessibility?
Augmented Reality (AR) is all about overlaying invented images onto reality.
It’s a highly visual medium, right? So you might think that it wouldn’t be much use to people with sight loss.
In fact the opposite is true. That’s what we found when we began to optimise our Augmented Reality portal platform, to improve accessibility for people with sight loss. The truth is that Augmented Reality, if it is optimised with the visually impaired user in mind, can be of real benefit to people with low vision.
The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness estimates that roughly 253 million people are visually impaired worldwide, of whom 36 million are blind.
Yet most AR applications target users with full vision.
What we have discovered is that AR, as a new technology, could provide real opportunities to improve the lives of people with visual impairments. That’s why Knowsley Council commissioned Gazooky to examine the challenges of accessibility in AR for people with sight loss and low vision.
The aim was to complement the AR Domes of Curiosity app we made for Knowsley, as part of their Year of Culture.
AR Domes of Curiosity
The AR ‘Domes’ can be placed all over the borough of Knowsley. They are magical portals which let you enter a 3D AR world where pictures, films and text can appear all around you. What’s more, we’ve made the platform easy for customers like Knowsley to put their own content inside a dome. We designed the back-end user management system (Dome-maker site) to be intuitive and easy so that anyone can place content in this AR environment. It’s community activity, cutting-edge technology and immersive creativity, all combined to create something really new and exciting.
So, it’s only right that as many people as possible in the community can access it.
But we realised that some residents of Knowsley have sight issues. And a good proportion of a classic AR experience relies on being able to see clearly. So we needed to explore what changes could enhance the app, such as speech or audio cues, or colour and contrast changes, to improve the experience for low vision users.
The AR Sight Loss Accessibility Study
We decided to break the study into two parts:
Firstly, we wanted to involve the low vision community. So we put out a call to organisations, charities and local people, asking them to get in touch if they had vision issues and wanted to help shape this new app. There was a great response. We did multiple interviews and forum workshops, with an amazing bunch of people. They told us about their needs and experiences with mobile phone-based applications.
We wanted to understand the challenges they face; the solutions they have already found, and specifically the current limitations they experience with Augmented Reality applications.
Secondly, we wanted to adapt or rewrite the software to respond to the needs. So, armed with all the information and advice gathered from the community, our software developer team explored how the vision solutions which exist already for non-AR applications could be adapted. Initially, the developers were looking for existing solutions which could be easily integrated in an effective and affordable way. But it soon became clear that AR isn’t easy to make accessible for the visually impaired. So our team began designing new software for the parts of the AR which couldn’t use existing plug-ins.
So what did we find out AR accessibility for sight loss?
Firstly, that the low vision community is full of wonderful people and organisations. Like the Visual Impairment service, at Bradbury Fields, an organisation in Liverpool who promote the health and wellbeing of people living with sensory loss.
We learned from them how important this study was – one of the first of its kind they believed. They said that if we could make the AR Domes of Curiosity app more accessible, it would create significant benefits for people with low vision. It could:
- improve information and support services
- help raise awareness about the challenges of sight impairment
- improve interactivity with others
- improve engagement with physical places
- be a source of empowerment, giving people a voice
- create opportunities for groups of visually impaired people to make AR content for a dome themselves. This would give them a voice and a stake in community activities.
Sight Loss Isolation
What became clear to us is how some people with visual impairment are being forgotten. There can be a keen sense of isolation for people with visual loss, especially for younger people, who want to be out and about, doing things, meeting more people like themselves. So we felt that the AR Domes of Curiosity platform could be a real opportunity to support a forgotten cohort of the community.
Just reaching out to residents in this study, to ask them to help shape the app, was therefore really appreciated. Time and again people said things like: it’s just great to be listened to, great that our thoughts and needs are considered important”.
The process of getting them together in workshops was benficial in itself. It can be really empowering to meet people like yourself, rather than struggling alone. They really wanted to share the ways they were already overcoming the challenges and enjoying the rewards of accessing new technology. And they were keen to work out as a group how companies like Gazooky could improve accessibility for sight loss through smart AR development decisions.
It was a real privilege to work with these groups. We met many inspirational people, who were delighted to help. One man said from the moment he got involved he had a “spring in his step about the opportunity to be involved in something that could make a real difference.”
So, if you’re making an AR experience, here’s our first tip:
Tip #1: get a steering group of people with low vision involved, right from the beginning – for lots of reasons:
- they are inspiring and invaluable and welcome the opportunity to help shape new tech
- developing your AR in the right direction, at the beginning, saves time and money
- anything which makes it easy and more satisfying for someone with sight loss will usually improve the user experience for everyone
- there are a variety of different sight loss needs. Discussing AR accessibility with a group of experts will reach a more effective consensus decision
- many of the participants expressed a sense of isolation. So getting together with others in the same situation is powerful for everyone
- it gives this group a collective voice which could be good for the entire community
- it might lead to the group meeeting regularly. In our case, that could mean the group could make a special AR dome to promote their issues, ideas and needs to the wider community.
TIP #2: make sure your AR app can be accessed by iOS. All participants in workshops and interviews agreed: iOS phones have better in-built functions like a magnifying glass and Voice-Over. Sorry Android-makers, you’re behind the curve on this one!
TIP #3: make navigation seamless. Voice commands, speech recognition software and screen readers can be programmed into your app. Harness the power of audio description software already out there. So for instance you could make your app compatible with Voice-Over, Voice Dream or Soundscape, Seeing AI (iOS) or Talkback (if you also want to make it an Android app.) These will support the non-AR parts of your app. There is also a great app which we haven’t tried, but looks really promising called MyFinder.
The AR elements of your app might be a bit trickier, and can’t be supported easily by existing software development kits. Which leads me to the next tip….
TIP #4: get an experienced development team to optimise the AR elements of the app for audio description. Parts of our app, driven by Unity physics engine, couldn’t integrate with current software solutions. So that needs new software to be written – a job for an R&D development team. Get in touch with Gazooky if you need support in this.
Tip#5: Choose an accessible colour palette. Clashing colour can make text difficult to distinguish. Try to use whitespace to help users differentiate content blocks.
It’s not easy to choose colours. For example, bright blue, yellow and green together can be hard for users to distinguish. One participant said, “Never use blue or yellow together as they merge into one”.
Make contrast work for your user. For many people with limited vision, contrast is vital. Our steering group preferred either black background and white text or vice-versa.
Nearly 8% of all men have colour vision deficiency (CVD), and the most common problem is ‘red/green colour blindness’. So, care is needed with these colours. (This was a bit tough for us, because the Knowsley brand is red and grey!)
To check the contrast of colour choices, use WebAim. This tool helps you choose colour palettes based on usability.
TIP #6: Consider using more text. Even when you want to go with high quality visual beauty – you could add some captions or sub-titles, because screen reading software can adapt those more easily. If necessary, you could consider transcripts too, on another page which is easy to access. And before you claim that AR and games have to be visual, think about the game Zork. It creates storytelling and gamification using lots of complex text.
TIP #7: If you are making a mobile, location-based app, like our AR storyquests, make sure it is placed in the right sort of environment. Our steering group made it clear: it can’t be near an area of danger, or even a busy area. You don’t want the visually impaired person bumping into someone or something whilst concentrating on the phone. This is true for all users. Gazooky and Knowsley Council take Health and Safety implications really seriously, and the dome-makers are advised accordingly. But this issue is obviously even more important for people with sight loss.
TIP #8: Audio is everyone’s friend. Rely as heavily as you want on audio, with voices, music and immersive sound effects, to support any visuals. It can only enhance the experience for everyone! Audio is a great storytelling and gamification tool – and it is less expensive than visuals usually, so what’s not to like?
TIP #9: Choose fonts carefully. Non-standard fonts aren’t great for many low vision users. Serif fonts might look creative, but they are really difficult to read for people with visual impairments. Sans Serif fonts are much easier to distinguish from images and coloured backgrounds.
And it’s not just about the style of font, consider the size too. For easy readability, a minimum size of 14 for a Sans Serif font is best (although if users have the magnifying glass function in iOS, they can at least adjust the font).
TIP #10: make sure you advertise that your AR is optimised for people with low vision. The steering group said they are so used to being ignored, they often won’t consider new tech unless they know it’s accessible. So shout about it.
It might feel like an extra load of hassle to consider this demographic for accessibility when you are already clambering over technical hurdles and doing something innovative in AR. But a lot of what we learned will improve AR experiences for all our users. And once you’ve made the decisions, and put software compatibility in place, it’s easy to do it for your next app.
AR accessibility for people with Low Vision? It’s a win-win-win….