Veronica With Four Eyes

VR For VI: Virtual Reality For Visually Impaired

Virtual reality technology has been changing how many different industries present and interpret information, and education is no exception. While it may not be feasible to travel halfway around the world to visit a museum or landmark, it’s certainly easy to find an app or video that uses virtual reality technology to explore the same places at your own pace, at any time of day or night, and with the use of assistive technology. Here are my tips for using virtual reality technology for students with visual impairments, inclusive of blind/low vision.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality is known by many names, including 360 video, immersive video, spherical video, and augmented reality, and can also be abbreviated as VR or AR. It allows for a user to immerse themselves in a virtual environment using technology. Videos are shot with multidirectional cameras from every angle, and put together using a technique called video stitching. Virtual reality allows for a user to be completely immersed in an environment, while augmented reality allows for a blending of virtual reality and the real world.

Is special equipment needed?

There are many virtual and augmented reality systems that are accessed using headsets, special helmets, and other specialty equipment. However, some systems can be accessed using devices that can be found in a classroom, including iPads, iPhones, Android phones, and computers. One of my favorite things to do is pair mobile devices with my Google Chromecast so I can enlarge images easily.

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Accessibility settings for devices

A growing number of VR apps are compatible with VoiceOver, TalkBack, and other popular screen readers, which can describe the environment with information from alt text in the images and videos. Some apps may use their own descriptive audio to describe surroundings and integrate other sounds as well. For apps that feature text based descriptions, large print and triple-tap magnification should be enabled either from within the app or the device settings.

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Searching for videos on YouTube

YouTube VR is a widely used platform for viewing virtual reality content, and features hundreds of different videos shot with VR technology. Examples of videos available include amusement park rides, concerts, and places from around the world. Users can search for VR content on YouTube by going into the search filter options and choosing the 360 option (note that this can only be done in a web browser and not in the app), or by adding “360” to the end of a search query.

Search results from the YouTube app that show puppies in 360 video

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Virtual museum tours

The Google Arts and Culture app allows for users to go through guided interactive museum experiences. They feature a mix of text, images, and video. During these tours, the user can view life size sculptures and artifacts, as well as high resolution copies of the art on display.

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Look to the sky

While it may be hard to see the stars in the sky, augmented reality makes it possible for people with vision loss to look at the night sky. The Night Sky integrates with VoiceOver to describe the events occurring in the nighttime sky anywhere in the world in real time, with the help of location services. Users can visualize constellations and other astronomical landmarks with ease by pointing their device towards the sky. No need to use the app outside though- pointing the screen at the ceiling works just as well.

A screenshot from The Night Sky app that features the Aquarius constellation

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Visiting other landmarks with Google

Virtual reality technology allows users to visit any famous landmark in the world without having to walk anywhere. There are a few different apps from Google that allow users to explore landmarks, including:

Google Expeditions

One of my favorite apps for visiting landmarks is Google Expeditions. Google Expeditions allows users to explore landmarks with a combination of text descriptions, images, and 360 video.

A screenshot of the Google expeditions app that shows an Angelfish, along with a text description of the angelfish

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Google Earth

Google Earth has several VR features, including a variety of high quality, 3D renderings and guided audio tours.

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Google Maps

For those who want to explore the world around them in a more simple way, Google Maps offers 360-degree street view options that mimic the renderings on Google Earth VR without the need for additional technology or app downloads. I’ve used Google Maps to tour colleges and find more information about surrounding areas.

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Relax and de-stress

VR and AR experiences don’t have to be used for strictly educational purposes. Students that are dealing with sensory overload or experiencing high amounts of anxiety may benefit from calming 360 videos of cute animals, aquariums, or relaxing places such as beaches. For added effect, play ambient noise either from the video, or by using the Amazon Echo.

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More tips for using virtual reality tools with low vision

  • Make sure to take frequent breaks to avoid eye strain and/or vertigo- I recommend looking away from the screen every few minutes to look at an item on the wall or similar environmental item
  • Instead of using a headset, I prefer to use a screen such as a phone, tablet, or computer monitor to view content, since it is easier to enlarge that way

Options for exploring museums and famous places with virtual reality and visual impairment