VR for VI: How Visually Impaired Students Can Use Virtual Reality

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 vision impairments.

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 speciality equipment. However, some systems can be accessed using devices that can be found in a classroom, including iPads, iPhones, Android phones, and even computers. One of my favorite things to do is pair mobile devices with my Google Chromecast so I can enlarge images easily- read more about the Google Chromecast here.

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- read more about alt text and why it is important here. 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. Read more about accessibility settings for Android phones here and accessibility settings for iOS devices here.

Searching for videos on YouTube

Youtube VR is a widely used platform for viewing virtual reality content, and is available on almost all devices 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.

Screenshot of Youtube Puppies 360 search: 4 results showing on page

A note on motion sensitivity

When working with virtual reality, remember to take frequent breaks while viewing, and obey any additional safety precautions given by an app or video. During breaks, find an object to focus on like a wall clock, piece of furniture, or other item that does not emit light. If photosensitivity is a concern, have someone else go through the app or video first to ensure there are no hidden flashing or strobing lights. Read more about photosensitivity in the classroom here.

Virtual museum tours

The Google Arts and Culture app allows for users to go through guided interactive museum experiences that 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. Read more about visiting the Smithsonian American Art Museum with a vision impairment here, and read more about why high resolution images are important here. Download the Google Arts and Culture app for iOS on the App Store here and for Android on the Google Play Store here.

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 impairments 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. Download The Night Sky app for iOS on the App Store here.

Nighttime sky with overlay drawing of constellations with stars labeled.

Visiting other landmarks

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

Google Expeditions

One of my favorite apps for visiting landmarks is Google Expeditions, which allows users to explore landmarks with a combination of text descriptions, images, and 360 video- download it for iOS on the App Store hereand for Android on the Play Store here.

Screenshot of Google Expeditions: image of underwater ocean and text describing Angelfish.

Google Earth

My brother also talked about using Google Earth's VR features, where users can explore the entire earth with a variety of high quality, 3D renderings and guided audio tours- download Google Earth for iOS on the App Store hereand for Android on the Play Store here.

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.

Relax and de-stress

VR and AR experiences don't have to be used for strictly educational purposes. Students that are overwhelmed, 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, ambient noise can be added either from the video, or by using the Amazon Echo- read more about ambient noise options for Amazon Alexa here.

A cool way to share information

Virtual reality is only going to continue to grow in popularity as schools move towards incorporating more educational technology and digital literacy skills in the classroom. While at first glance these activities might not seem to be accessible for students with vision impairments, it's easy to integrate assistive technology and include students with all vision levels in virtual reality and augmented reality activities.

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