Accessing XR in the Workplace of the Future

Written BY

Emily Friedman

April 7, 2020

If you're unfamiliar with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) in the enterprise, here's a crash course: Companies such as Boeing, Ford and Walmart are adopting immersive technologies like AR glasses and VR headsets to improve efficiency, productivity, and safety via a number of applications like training and remote support.

Immersive technologies (AR/VR) could improve lives and contribute to the GDP by enabling people with disabilities to take on careers that have so far been closed off to them. Unfortunately, enterprise AR and VR tech isn't currently designed with disabled users in mind. This is an untapped opportunity for XR companies and employers alike.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is significantly higher than for able-bodied people. Employers are required to provide reasonable modifications to the work environment to enable disabled persons to do their jobs. That might mean a wheelchair ramp or adaptive hardware for computer use. But, so far, it hasn't included immersive devices.

While the hype around AR and VR focuses on democratizing knowledge and access to new worlds, the technology hasn't extended to the disabled community. Let's look at VR in particular: It often takes coordinated body movements to navigate and interact in the virtual environment. User interfaces that make use of hand and head tracking require precision, excluding those with poor motor skills. And the use of more than one controller puts the tech out of reach if you lack two functioning arms or hands. Finally, the content's reliance on visual cues is a barrier to entry for the vision impaired.

Accessibility is entirely possible

But these limitations are fixable: A startup called Walkin VR Driver, for example, allows someone in a wheelchair to move in virtual reality by assigning physical actions such as crouch or walk to the handheld controllers. A virtual controller, tracked by the headset or mirroring a handheld controller, makes one-handed play possible. Players can also adjust a controller's orientation, sensitivity, and range of motion to suit their unique limitations. Consider a person with cerebral palsy who has motor function only in one arm, reduced finger dexterity, and diminished speech abilities. This was the inspiration behind Eyeflite Ava, a VR app made for the Oculus Go. Controlled entirely by head movement, Ava allows the user to perform a variety of tasks like using a computer hands-free.

Microsoft has also been researching how to make immersive technologies usable by people of all abilities. The company offers SeeingVR, a developer toolkit for enhancing VR apps for people with low vision, and Canetroller, a haptic cane controller that allows the vision impaired to navigate virtual environments.

Relumino is a visual aid app by Samsung that clarifies blurry images for people with low vision wearing the Gear VR. Many people with central vision loss are surprised to find they see better using headsets like the HTC Vive. By magnifying objects and boosting contrast, the devices open these users up to visual experiences they're unable to have in the real world. Immersive audio might also add a sense of presence. What we need now is for similar capabilities to be brought into the workplace.

The future of work

Immersive tech can enable the disabled to participate more fully in the workforce. Those of us without disabilities take for granted that we go to work every day and receive pay to support ourselves. Meanwhile, over 68% of Americans with disabilities want to work but can't find a job (Kessler Foundation). These individuals are missing out on important financial and social opportunities. Employers, too, are missing out, since there's typically lower absenteeism, less turnover, and higher loyalty among disabled workers (UN).

In cases where an otherwise highly skilled worker is unable to transport himself to and from a physical office or work location every day, AR glasses would allow him to work remotely and still connect to coworkers around the world. The future of the workplace may be more remote and virtual anyways: A number of companies like Spatial and D6 VR are working on virtual workspaces, and Citi - in an early proof of concept for Microsoft's HoloLens - even created a virtual trading desk. Adjustments employers make today to accommodate employees with disabilities could help businesses adapt more quickly to virtual work in the future.

As a training medium, the technology will be crucial for addressing the skilled labor shortage, helping to fill millions of vacant positions in the industrial workforce and reskill employees as AI, automation and other emerging technologies advance in the coming years. Big companies like FedEx and Holiday Inn are already experimenting with VR training methods. One day, immersive will be the main method of learning. Anyone unable to use the technology will be left behind.

The Dan Marino Foundation, for one, helps young people with autism prepare for job interviews using VR. Part of a larger initiative between the Foundation and USC's Institute of Creative Technologies, ViTA (Virtual Interactive Training Agent) can simulate six interview situations with interviewers ranging from friendly to hostile. Sitting across the table from a human-like avatar in a typical office setting, students practice answering questions about their skills and experience. The solution also tracks user progress in terms of eye contact, body language, engagement, and other key markers.

The bottom line

The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures disabled persons aren't excluded from job opportunities based on their disability. This applies to all aspects of employment, including hiring, training, and advancement.

Augmented and virtual reality have the potential to break down physical, geographic, and social barriers in the workforce. As these technologies become more pervasive in learning and at work, it will be necessary to either adapt the devices or redesign them. Accessibility shouldn't be an afterthought. With a growing shortage of skilled labor, employers should be thinking outside the box, considering alternative, untapped labor pools and investing in the most effective technology to train them.

Image source: Disability Insider

Further Reading