A whole new world: the virtual reality experience made accessible

A whole new world: the virtual reality experience made accessible

We’re living in a time where tech is super advanced. Virtual reality (VR) has moved into the tech spotlight, transforming everything from gaming to professional training. It’s not just about exploring new worlds from your living room; it’s also about learning, connecting, and tackling real-world problems – in new ways. This virtual reality experience is shaking up the ways in which we interact with technology, making it more dynamic and immersive than ever before.

In fact, the global market value of VR is expected to surge, reaching a very impressive $27 billion. This growth demonstrates VR’s impact, and the level of engagement it’s bringing to individuals and businesses across all industries. It isn’t a technological novelty; it’s become a huge part of how we work, live and are entertained.

In this piece, we’ll explore the insights, the challenges and the opportunities of truly great VR experiences.

What is virtual reality?

Mark Zuckerberg, Managing Director of Facebook, once described virtual reality as “a new communication platform.” He explained that, by feeling truly present, you’re able to share limitless spaces and experiences with those in your life. It’s a way to share moments online with friends, while stepping into whole new adventures, environments and experiences. 

Virtual reality (VR) is designed to create a fully immersive experience, where users feel completely engaged in a simulated environment, existing beyond the physical world. It allows for virtual reality simulation and representations of reality through immersive technology. 

Virtual reality content creators have two main strategies: first, there’s computer-generated VR, where everything in the virtual world is built from scratch using code to build a fully interactive experience. Then, there’s 360-degree video. This method captures video from all angles using an omni-directional camera, which is then edited to craft an immersive viewing experience. 

VR has a pretty fascinating backstory too. Let’s walk through VR’s early origins. 

Virtual reality storytelling: the origins

The concept of VR actually dates back to the 1950s and 1960s. One of the first people to dream up something like VR was Morton Heilig, a filmmaker and inventor. In 1962, he created the Sensorama, a machine that wasn’t just about seeing a different world, but also feeling and smelling it. It was like a mini virtual reality theater – virtual reality storytelling at its finest!

Then, in the mid-1960s, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, took another huge leap forward. He invented the “Sword of Damocles,” the first head-mounted display system. It was a bit clunky (literally hanging from the ceiling because it was too heavy to wear!), but it laid the foundation for what VR has become today.

From there, VR technology kept evolving. By the 1980s and 1990s, it began to pop up in arcades and tech labs. As the tech got better and more affordable, VR began to move into our living rooms and our offices. Now, VR is not just for gaming; it’s used in education, training, therapy, and even remote work! 

But what really makes virtual reality so immersive? Let’s look into how VR captivates our senses and pulls us into these virtual worlds.

How is virtual reality immersive?

Virtual reality is immersive because it tricks your senses into believing you’re in a whole new world. Here’s how developers of virtual reality apps pull this off: 

1. Visuals: VR headsets cover your field of vision with high-resolution displays, showing you a 3D environment that changes as you look around. This tricks your brain into thinking you’re somewhere else.

2. Audio: By using 3D audio, VR creates sounds that seem to come from specific locations in your environment. If something happens to your left, you’ll hear it from the left, adding to the illusion of being in that space.

3. Interaction: With controllers, gloves, or even body tracking, virtual reality interaction is where users control the virtual environment in a natural way. You can pick up objects, push buttons, or wave to virtual characters, which makes the experience feel more real.

4. Motion: Some VR setups have treadmills or motion platforms that let you walk or move in the virtual space, enhancing the realism. Even without these, the ability to look around or move your hands can be really engaging.

All these elements work together to create a compelling, immersive experience that’s much more than just watching a screen. You’re not just observing; you’re part of the action. 

The VR goal is to make the experience as engaging as possible, harnessing advanced computer technology experienced through virtual reality devices like VR headsets to transport users to entirely new realms. This multi-dimensional approach enchants the senses, intensifying the user’s presence within the virtual world.

How popular is virtual reality technology becoming?

The virtual reality industry is rapidly expanding. In 2023 alone, there were 65.9 million VR users in the U.S. with an estimated 171 million VR users worldwide. The VR/AR gaming market is likely to hit as far as $571 billion by 2025. 

According to data from Statista, the adoption of VR headsets has seen significant growth over the past six years. In 2017, there were approximately 11 million VR headset owners in the United States. By 2023, this number had increased to 32.7 million users, nearly tripling the user base.

And it isn’t just gaming where VR is making waves….let’s take a deeper dive at where VR is making an impact.

How is virtual reality used in industry?

Virtual reality is making waves in multiple sectors. It is being used in fields such as healthcare, education, and real estate to transform how we learn, heal, and interact with spaces…Here’s a glimpse of how VR in industry is making an impact:

In training: Virtual reality in training is allowing trainees in sectors like healthcare, aviation, and manufacturing to practice complex procedures in safe, controlled environments. For example, surgeons hone their skills on virtual patients and pilots navigate turbulent conditions – all without real-world risks. This immersive training not only cuts costs but also reduces potential hazards. Customizable VR experiences meet specific job needs, boosting engagement and retention by showing employees the direct relevance of their training.

In education: VR enhances learning by providing immersive experiences that transcend traditional classroom walls. For example, a VR-based history lesson might empower students to virtually visit the pyramids of Egypt or a science class might allow students to explore complex biological structures, making learning a dynamic process. Whether simulating medical procedures for training doctors or allowing chemistry students to perform risk-free experiments, VR prepares students for real-life challenges in engaging ways.

In entertainment: Virtual reality is expanding the boundaries of gaming and cinema. Virtual reality games like “Half-Life: Alyx” offer unprecedented levels of immersion and narrative depth, while VR cinemas and live events let global audiences experience movies and concerts as if they were physically present. Virtual reality platforms like VRChat and Meta’s Horizon Worlds further innovate social interactions, creating virtual spaces where people can connect and share experiences beyond physical limitations.

Virtual reality in healthcare: VR is advancing the medical field by providing interactive simulations for medical training and patient care. These virtual environments enable healthcare professionals to practice intricate surgeries and diagnostic procedures without risk, boosting their skills and patient safety. VR is also used in therapeutic settings, helping patients with pain management, mental health issues, and physical rehabilitation through tailored virtual experiences that promote healing and recovery. 

Virtual reality immersion: navigating the challenges

While virtual reality brings huge benefits across various industries, it also presents unique challenges, particularly with regards to health and accessibility for individuals with disabilities. Here’s an walk through some of the challenges and limitations associated with VR and its use for people with disabilities:

Physical interaction requirements

  • Many VR applications require users to stand, walk, or use hand controllers, which can be difficult or impossible for those with mobility impairments.
  • Some VR headsets require precise head movements, which may exclude users with motor disabilities affecting neck or head control.

Lack of universal design principles

  • VR technologies often lack standardized accessibility features, which can prevent individuals with disabilities from using them effectively.
  • Universal design is not yet a widespread practice in VR development, leading to varied user experiences that can disadvantage certain groups.

Inconsistent implementation of accessibility features

  • Subtitles for users with hearing impairments are not always available in VR content, making auditory information inaccessible.
  • Alternative control schemes that can accommodate different physical abilities are often lacking, limiting the use of VR for those who cannot use traditional controllers.
  • Audio descriptions that provide narrations of visual elements to assist users with visual impairments are not commonly integrated into VR systems.

Sensory overload

  • VR environments can sometimes be overwhelming, particularly for users with sensory processing disorders, due to intense stimuli.
  • The lack of options to customize sensory inputs (like reducing brightness, contrast, or audio levels) can deter usage among sensitive populations.

Addressing these concerns requires a concerted effort from VR developers, designers, and regulatory bodies to incorporate accessibility into the early stages of design and development. This approach ensures that VR technology can reach its full potential as a tool for all users, regardless of their physical abilities. 

What are the strategies that developers can use to make VR beneficial for all people? How can VR design be made accessible and user-friendly?

How to make virtual reality accessible for everyone

Developers can make VR beneficial for all by focusing on accessibility and user-friendliness right from the start. Here are a few strategies VR developers can use:

Universal design: Incorporate principles of universal design which ensure that VR applications can be used by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. This means designing for various user needs from the beginning, rather than making adjustments later.

Customizable settings: Offer robust customization options, such as adjustable text sizes, contrast settings, and audio controls. This allows users with visual, auditory, or other impairments to adjust the settings to their needs.

Ergonomic hardware: Design VR hardware that is comfortable and adjustable for different body sizes and abilities. Lightweight headsets, adaptable controllers, and support for users who need to remain seated are all important considerations.

Motion sickness minimization: Work on technologies and design approaches that reduce motion sickness, such as optimizing frame rates, reducing latency, and providing stable reference points in the VR environment.

Feedback and support systems: Implement clear feedback and support systems within VR environments. Audio cues, haptic feedback, and visual aids can help guide users and enhance their understanding and navigation of virtual spaces.

Inclusive testing: Conduct user testing with diverse groups, including people with disabilities, to gather feedback and understand various user experiences in VR. This testing should inform iterative design improvements.

Collaboration with accessibility experts: Collaborate with accessibility experts and organizations that advocate for people with disabilities to ensure that VR technologies meet a broad range of needs and legal accessibility requirements.

By employing these strategies, VR developers can create experiences that are not only accessible but also enriching and enjoyable for everyone. To guide these efforts effectively, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.2 play a pivotal role. 

Let’s find out more about how WCAG guidelines have been expanded to include specific criteria for virtual and augmented reality.

The WCAG: guidelines on VR accessibility

Many accessibility challenges in virtual environments have been discussed in the WCAG, which now includes specific criteria for virtual and augmented reality. 

This update is critical as VR technologies become more prevalent, illustrating the importance of making these platforms accessible to people with disabilities. 

WCAG 2.2 introduces guidelines to enhance accessibility in these emerging technologies. These improvements include enabling navigation through speech input and ensuring that alternative text is available for non-text elements, allowing all users to engage fully with VR’s innovative digital experiences.

VR: real words in real worlds

A guiding principle in the disability rights movement is “Nothing about us, without us.” It’s a powerful slogan that has been widely adopted in the disability rights movement. It encapsulates a demand for self-representation and active participation of disabled people in all decisions that affect their lives. 

Keeping this principle in mind, let’s hear directly from people with disabilities about their experiences using VR*:

“I rely on a power wheelchair for mobility, so VR setups that necessitate full-body movement are not practical for me, especially since I need one hand to operate my chair. However, a VR system that could integrate with my chair’s controller to move it as needed would be ideal. Such a setup could potentially offer a more immersive VR experience than what able-bodied individuals experience.”

“Because I play games using my feet due to my inability to use my hands and legs, any VR experience that demands more than a standard controller or mouse and keyboard is beyond my reach.”

“I have limited arm mobility, and extending my arm or reaching out puts stress on my spine, leading to significant pain. I still enjoy VR, but the experiences need to be slower paced and more focused on observation to accommodate my physical limitations.”

The quotes provided are paraphrased and not verbatim, capturing the essence of the individuals’ experiences with VR.*

UserWay: making the virtual reality experience accessible

UserWay offers a suite of accessibility solutions that could greatly enhance the inclusivity of virtual reality (VR) environments. By utilizing UserWay’s tools for accessibility and compliance, VR content developers can create experiences that are immersive and accessible to a wider audience. Interested to find out how it all works in the real world? Book a demo today.


What are some examples of virtual reality?

Virtual reality examples include immersive gaming experiences, virtual tours of historical landmarks, and simulated training environments for industries like healthcare and aviation.

What are the 4 key elements of a virtual reality experience?

The four key elements of a virtual reality experience are immersive visuals, realistic audio, interactive environments, and natural interaction methods such as motion tracking or hand controllers.

What makes a VR experience accessible?

A VR experience is accessible when it’s designed to accommodate a wide range of users, including those with disabilities. This includes features such as customizable controls, adjustable settings for visuals and audio, clear navigation cues, support for alternative input methods, and adherence to accessibility standards like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). 

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