Designing a user experience (UX) and ensuring accessibility in XR boils down to basically the same task; addressing the needs of the user. We have Dylan Fox and Devin Boyle from XR Access on to talk about designing with accessibility in mind from the start, and discuss the upcoming 2020 XR Access Symposium.
Julie: Hello, my name is Julie Smithson, and I am your XR for Learning podcast host. I look forward to bring you insight into changing the way that we learn and teach using XR technologies to explore, enhance and individualize learning for everyone. Today, my guests come from XR Access. Dylan Fox is a user experience designer, specializing in design for emerging technologies. He brings together user needs, technological capabilities, and stakeholder requirements to design accessible products. And his master’s thesis was on augmented reality for the visually impaired, exploring Microsoft Hololens as an assistive device. And Devin Boyle is an advisor to XR Access, working groups and emerging technology lead for the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology — otherwise known as PEAT — supporting efforts to ensure emerging technologies are born accessible. She has more than 10 years of experience in policy analysis and development, stakeholder engagement, strategic communication, and advocacy and partnership building. Thank you both for joining me today.
So, Dylan, can you give me a little bit of an outline of the work that you’re doing in building a better user experience for those with accessibility challenges?
Dylan: All right. Thanks, Julie. I’m Dylan. I’m a user experience designer. Just recently finished up my Master’s at UC Berkeley, and now working in accessible design for bridging technologies for all sorts of things. So for me, I see my role initially as a UX designer, which is a user experience designer and somebody who understands user needs; what people need out of technology, what people expect from technology, how they understand it, and how we can design it to better work for them. And I worked for as a UX designer for a couple of years, but only recently have I really realized just how much UX can learn from the field of accessibility, because accessibility is fundamentally about addressing user needs. Some of the work I’ve been doing lately is with XR Access, of course. We’ve been trying to understand what those user needs are, across a wide spectrum when it comes to virtual and augmented reality. I’ve also been doing some work with UC Berkeley, doing some research with private companies who want to make their work more accessible, and make sure their users get everything that they need out of their software.
Julie: We’ll dive a little bit more into the UI and the work that you’re doing at XR access. But I wanted to allow Devin to just give a little bit of an introduction, and how you got involved and what your involvement is with XR Access and working with Dylan and accessibility.
Devin: Sure. Thanks, Julie, for having us on. I’m Devin Boyle. I am an adviser to XR Access and emerging tech lead for the Partnership on Employment & Accessible Technology. And I came to this space in a little different road from Dylan, a little bit different path. I actually come from a background of being a convener. So one of my roles within XR Access is to bring together these six different working groups — that we’ll likely get into in this conversation — but to bring folks together and also to support communications, communicating internally and externally why industry needs to ensure different technologies, emerging technologies are accessible.
Julie: Let’s kick off with what are those working groups? And then we can go over and talk about it with Dylan. How about user experiences, maybe? Devin, can you outline those six working groups?
Devin: Sure, Julie. I’m happy to talk a little bit about our working group. So we have six XR access working groups — what we call working groups — as part of our work within XR Access. And the focus of the working groups is really to help raise awareness of the importance of accessibility in XR, and also to bring together folks so that they can collaborate with other folks that are interested in making their technologies accessible, but also people that want to learn about the importance of accessibility. We have advocates. We have people from academia. We have people from industry organizations like Google and Microsoft. Those types of organizations usually come to the table in our conversations. But another important aspect of our working groups is every working group, we’re made up of a diverse group of folks that include people with disabilities, which is one of the things we can get into later in this conversation. But it’s always important to have people with disabilities at the table.
Anyway, I digress a bit. The six working groups we have, the first is focused on guidelines, policies, and practices. And the focus of that is to really research and analyze and collaborate with stakeholders to, at the end of the day, put together recommendations to inform the development of accessible emerging tech, moving forward. Then we have an awareness and outreach group, and the focus of that is on basically external communication, amplifying the why and the how of accessible emerging technology. We do have an education group, which edges the lines with some of the work you’re talking about for this podcast, Julie. They really focus on building awareness in the K-12 higher ed context, to make sure that educators understand the ins and outs of accessible technology and how accessibility is important in the classroom when it comes to technology. We have Dylan’s group — which I think he’ll talk a little bit more about — and his group is application accessibility, and I’ll leave it up to him to describe that. We also have a hardware devices group, which they focus on hardware and all the headsets people put on to make sure that they are accessible. And then finally, content and authoring group, which focuses on considering how producers, designers, developers can create accessible content for people with disabilities. So that’s our six.
Julie: Well, that’s great. That gives us a lot of stuff to unpack. And it’s great to see the movement in every aspect, to see how we can implement accessibility for everyone. I’d love to take it over to Dylan. And Dylan, maybe you can set the stage for what it’s like right now, for somebody with an accessibility challenge dealing with technology. Not just our smartphone devices where they’ve been around for years, but now we’re starting to talk about using virtual reality and and immersing people who have accessibility challenges, whether they have a limited vision or hearing, some may not even have limbs, or this technology now allows them to be mobile, changing their perception inside of a spatial environment.
Dylan: Absolutely, Julie. I think the unfortunate side of things right now is that if you have a disability, there are going to be a lot of applications in VR and in AR that you’re just not going to be able to use. Unfortunately, even on a platform level, things are tough right now. If you are, for example, blind, well, you try to get an Oculus Quest, one of the first things that does when you boot it up is say, “Hey, OK, go over to your iPhone or your Android, and plug in this code.” And there is no option to read that code out. So we had one of our members had to ask a neighbor to, “Hey, can you put on this headset and read this code out to me?” Right now, what we’re seeing is there are a few studios, a few developers that kind of go out of their way, go the extra mile in order to make things accessible. I know Owlchemy Labs has done a great job with doing things like captions and one handed modes on their Vacation Simulator game. There’s a few other notable exceptions to the rule, the studios that have really gone out of their way to make things accessible.
But it’s something that we’re still trying to kind of understand and get out there. The fundamentals of what makes it accessible, and how both developers and designers can do that at kind of an individual level, but also trying to bring some of these platforms into the mix and getting things accessible on a platform level. Ideally, so that any developer can just plug into– in the same way that you can on iPhone and Android now, just plug into these platform level APIs to help make things accessible, to make sure that the standard is accessibility. Which is going to be very important as XR moves into to less just gaming and applying fun Snapchat filters to your face, and more used in real educational and industrial places.
I can also speak specifically to what we’re doing here in the application accessibility group. We have essentially two different functions. The first is application analysis. So this is trying to look at some of the more heavily used applications out there, understand which are really big winners and which are really big losers when it comes to accessibility. And in the case of the– like in those studios that have gone out of their way to understand their process, and reach out to them and say, “Why is it that you have found both the time and resources to make your game accessible? And how have you actually done it? How can we help others do it?” And then for the less successful ones, reach out to occasionally the developers, but more often to the users and say, “Hey, what is it about this that makes it so difficult or impossible to use for you?” Understand those commonalities and draw from them a working theory on what are the most effective ways that people can make their apps accessible.
We just released a big survey on that, trying to understand from a variety of different people — both in personal use and in professional use in industry — what are those common applications, and where are the victories and the barriers in accessibility? And we’re trying to just make sure that we don’t end up with a small subset of apps that– especially ones that are targeted specifically at people with disabilities that are, “Here are the accessible apps. If you are blind, here’s the five apps you can use.” No, we want *all* of the apps to be apps you can use. And so we try to basically set the standards to make sure that that can happen.
The other thing that we do in the app accessibility group is accessibility tools analysis. And so this is understanding now the tools that are aimed specifically at people with disabilities. There’s some really amazing research out there in the academic community, especially around things like Microsoft SeeingVR: this whole suite of tools like magnifiers, contrast enhancers, all kinds of things. But that currently only exists in a research paper, and some one Github repo that has these potentially amazing tools, and yet no way to actually get them into the places where they can do good. So the other function of the app accessibility group is to look at those tools, reach out to the creators and understand the utility and the barrier to getting those tools publicly available and doing good out in the world.
Julie: I think the key here is to– is one of the things that you also said to me in advance was working with the people with disabilities, as opposed to just making things for people with challenges, and actually having them involved in discovering, because this is all new to everybody. And I was in the conference that you were a part of. And just listening to the troubleshooting that takes so long for people to gain access into a platform, I think there was about 30 minutes before it kind of kicked off in that session in Hubs that you had with Thomas Logan, and being with the users and having them provide feedback into what they want to experience is really key. What are the prompts that are needed? What are the things that need to be in the experience and have everyone be a part of that, and not just have certain applications made for certain people? It should be everything should be accessible.
Devin: Julie, if you don’t mind me jumping in: July 20th and 21st, we have our XR Access Virtual Symposium. It’s free for anybody to attend. But one of the components we decided to include was to create a Hub space, where people that have access to headsets and XR technology can join, so that we can all come together in that environment to talk about the accessibility issues we’re experiencing in that situation. So I think we’ll come out of that with a lot of great information there and allow people to collaborate well in the space. And Dylan, I don’t know if you wanted to say anything more about that.
Dylan: Yeah. No, I think you’re absolutely right, in that it it is all about designing with people, not designing at people. I think that’s why it’s very important to us to have as much representation as we can from the disability community in XR Access. I think it’s something that we tried to take great pains to make sure that all of our meetings are accessible and that the symposium will be accessible, which is why– there are potentially the tools to hold entire conferences in VR. And we’ve seen that with things like IEEE, VR 2020. There’s been Educators In VR, kind of international symposium. But unfortunately, when you do the whole thing in VR, then VR is still– even some of the best platforms are still far from being fully accessible. And so you leave a lot of people out.
And so what we’ve chosen to do for the symposium is keep the vast majority of it in this kind of Zoom accessible template. We’ll have sign language interpreters, we’ll have full captioning, we’ll have things that have been kind of tried and true for accessibility purposes. But we also want to make sure that we get the feedback from people with disabilities directly to the platform creators, which is why we’re doing a breakout session in Mozilla Hubs, because Mozilla has been really receptive to accessibility feedback. Unfortunately, at the moment their– a lot of their resources are going into trying to get the platform as a whole ready to go. But they’ve been taking kind of close notes on– people right now, for example, with screen readers are having a really hard time.
And we’re hoping that by having this kind of experimental session where we can bring folks with disabilities into this VR meeting space — that they might typically have trouble accessing — and try to troubleshoot some of those and try to just make sure that we’re getting that feedback directly from people with disabilities, and getting that into the hands and the ears of the people at the platform level who have the ability to make changes to that platform, to make it more accessible. That’s the kind of feedback loop that we’re really trying to establish here. And I think that needs to happen for Microsoft and for Facebook and for all of these platforms, all these companies that are running platforms in XR.
Julie: So I want to kind of break this up here, because there’s the user experience once you’re actually inside these experiences, being able to be spatially present and learning among whatever environment is around you. But then there’s also the accessibility of actually logging in and getting into the space, of being able to enter your log-in and password. And this leads to that conversation of corporate responsibility now. And maybe if I can ask Devin, talking about so many barriers in policy right now with governments and things like that, but yet they’re expected to adopt the inclusivity policy and guidelines more quickly than anybody else. And I think once they do, then everybody will follow. So maybe can you give a little bit of insight on what that barrier looks like right now, from a government and policy level? Because with the work that you’re doing, you’re both doing with XR Access is surely paving the way for people to understand and put those implementations into place. But where is the government right now, in the policy level of considering these platforms to become more mainstream in enterprise and government levels, so that the adoption can pick up?
Devin: Sure. So what I can say is, is there aren’t really any set in stone guidelines, policies or practices. Which is why we have this, what we call the GPP — Guidelines, Policies and Practices — working group, that exist specifically for emerging technologies. And what I can say and what I can speak to is my work through the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology, which is actually funded by the Department of Labour. What they are trying to do by getting involved in XR Access, having me involved in XR Access is to really be at the table, be collaborating, figure out what’s needed, figure out what needs to happen in order to put guidelines, policies and practices into place, to make sure all of these technologies are accessible for people with disabilities. Specifically my work with PEAT, we’re focused on making sure XR is accessible in the employment context. So when we think about the next 20, 30 years, all of this technology is very likely to be in the workplace. And if we don’t make these technologies accessible, that prevents people with disabilities from engaging in the day to day, going to work, having meetings, all of that stuff. So what I can say is that right now we’re in the listening, learning, and collaborating phase of the work.
Julie: And I think that leads to a great segue to XR collaboration, which XR Access is a sponsor and contributor to some of the content in our resource guide. But I also see it as a place where, once you’re finished with that symposium session in July, we take some of the action items from your symposium and then present them to the over 70 different platforms that we have hosted in our directory, as questions on their positioning and their development roadmap to implement those into their current code to be able to provide the access to everybody. So I’m grateful to have you guys on board, to be able to discover this for us, so that we can then introduce it into the mainstream of platform access, providing everyone with that ability. So it’ll be really interesting to see what comes out of your symposium. Did you want to speak a little bit more and present that, Dylan? A little bit more on the symposium, when it is, and how people can register for it?
Dylan: Well, actually, here. Let me hand that over to Devin, I think is going to have the more logistical details on it.
Devin: So, yeah, we have — as I mentioned — July 20th and 21st, we’re hosting the XR Access Symposium. It has previously been in-person, but this year it will be a free virtual event. And it’s bringing together not just the people that have been participating in XR Access, which right now is about 100. We have 140 participants. We’re bringing together just people across the board, cross-sector group of individuals. And it’s to discuss the progress we’ve made within XR Access over the past year, but also highlight the latest advancements in XR and accessibility in academic research, and lay out concrete steps — which is, to your point, Julie, which we can discuss — lay out concrete steps we can all take toward building this more accessible future, figure out what each group coming to the table can take away and start acting on, after they leave the event. And we have Matt May, actually — from Adobe, he’s the accessibility lead there — is one of our keynotes. We also have one of our working group leads, who’s Joel Ward, he’s at Booz Allen. And we have somebody from LinkedIn that’ll be speaking as well. So it’s it’s a broad mix of people, and we’re looking forward to having these different diverse perspectives at the table.
Julie: And I think just to add that for our listeners, such an important moment of corporate responsibility to become involved in inclusivity right now. And you hosting this symposium is certainly one that I hope — just even out of this podcast alone — will gain the recognition of corporate responsibility, and registering and sending their employees to learn more about how to introduce this technology and to processes and procedures, et cetera. So thank you, Devin. Dylan, the symposium itself. You know, I say that platforms and developers should also be attending this symposium to learn how to implement it. And is there any other information that you’d like to share on the actions that XR Access is doing for the developer community to become engaged, or just a little bit of promotion for it to tell them why they need to be a part of it?
Dylan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that the symposium is going to be a fantastic opportunity for a lot of different people to come together, and not only get kind of a crash course in accessibility in the context of XR, but to meet all of the people that will need to meet one another in order to make these things happen. Because I think we all have kind of an individual responsibility to make sure that accessibility is implemented here. We also all need to work together on this. I know one of the things that we’re doing is, for example, having breakout sessions. We are having sessions on for the application accessibility group, specifically low vision access. We have not only the kind of how and why of low vision access, but but also the accessibility object model, which is a great way for developers to be able to to implement the accessibility tools that need to happen. We’re going to have folks from Microsoft SeeingVR, folks from the Royal National Institute of Blind People coming together. And just potentially introducing a lot of important folks to one another, that really should be in the same room together in order to solve the multitude of challenges that we’ll need to do, in order to make sure these technologies available to everybody.
Devin: And just to add quickly to that, because I have to give him a nod. Another one of our keynote speakers, which your audience might find interesting, is Dr. Tom Furness, who is called the grandfather of virtual reality.
Julie: That’s really, really great. Well, it sounds like we need to do a part two of this particular podcast, because I think it would be great to meet up again. And let’s discuss those action items that were brought forward from your symposium, so that we can then share with everyone what their actions are. Let’s take a look at it from the government perspective, as well as the developer perspective. And employment perspective, of being able to introduce how the technologies will provide that all accessibility for the employees and people of interest for any organization. So I would love to invite you back if you both accept that invitation, because they think that we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Devin: Anytime, Julie.
Dylan: Yeah, absolutely.
Julie: Yeah. So thank you both so much for joining me. Dylan, why don’t you tell everybody how they can find you if they’re interested in learning more about XR Access, and where they can connect with you?
Dylan: Sure. Well, for XR Access, first of all, you can find us at xraccess.org. We’ve got a lot of information not only on the working groups, but as well as on a multitude of resources that we’ve gathered. So definitely check that out. You can find me on Twitter as @UsabilityFox, or on my portfolio at drfoxdesign.com.
Julie: That’s great. And Devin, where can we find you?
Dylan: So you can find our work at peatworks.org, so that’s for the Partnership on Employment and Accessible Technology.
Julie: Well, that’s great. Thank you so much, both of you, for joining me today. I really appreciate your time and commitment to making it an accessible world. Thank you so much, everybody, for listening. This is the XR for Learning podcast. And my name is Julie Smithson. Thanks, everyone, for listening.
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