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, including training and remote support.
Immersive technologies like these could improve lives and contribute to the GDP by enabling people with disabilities to take on careers that have so far been closed to them. Unfortunately, enterprise AR and VR tech isn't currently being designed with disabled users in mind, leaving a huge amount of potential untapped.
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 meant immersive devices.
It's unfortunate that, 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, leaving out 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 to the handheld controllers (ex. crouch, walk). 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/position, sensitivity, and range of motion to suit their unique limitations. Consider a person with cerebral palsy who has motor function in one arm, decreased finger dexterity and diminished speech abilities. This was the inspiration behind another VR app, Eyeflite Ava, made for the Oculus Go. Controlled entirely by head movement, Ava lets you do a variety of tasks hands-free, including using a computer and playing games built for head tracking.
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 makes blurry images clearer while wearing the Gear VR for people with low vision. Furthermore, 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 can't have in the real world. Immersive audio might also add a sense of presence in VR for the visually impaired.
What we need now is to make sure similar capabilities are 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 social and financial 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 in the field or collaborate with professionals all over the world. The future of the workplace might be more remote and virtual anyways: A number of companies like Spatial and D6 VR are working on virtual workspaces and, in an early proof of concept for Microsoft's HoloLens Mixed Reality headset, Citi created a virtual trading desk. Adjustments employers make today to accommodate employees with disabilities could help the business adapt more quickly to that 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 workers for new jobs created as AI, automation and other emerging technologies advance. Major companies like FedEx and Holiday Inn are already exploring how to replace traditional training programs with VR. One day, immersive will be the main method of learning, and those unable to use the technology will be left behind.
The Dan Marino Foundation, for one, helps young people with autism prepare for job interviews in VR. It's a part of a larger initiative between the Foundation and the 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 interviewing skills.
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 education and the workplace, it will be necessary to either adapt the devices or begin redesigning them. Accessibility shouldn't be an afterthought. With a growing shortage of skilled labor, employers should be thinking outside the box, considering alternative and untapped labor pools, and investing in the most effective technology to train them.
Image source: Microsoft