Brian Van Buren is a narrative designer at Tomorrow Today Labs, and he’s also a wheelchair user who has been evangelizing how to make virtual reality experiences more accessible. I had a chance to catch up with him at the Intel Buzz Workshop in June where we talked about some of his accessibility recommendations to other virtual reality developers, some good and bad examples of accessibility in VR, as well as some of things that VR technologies enable him to do in a virtual world that he can’t do in the real world.
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Some of the primary recommendations that Van Buren gives is that you can’t assume the dimensions of your user. Just because he’s is 4 foot 6 inches, doesn’t mean that he should be automatically assigned a child’s body avatar. Also, because he’s primarily sitting down, he’d still like to be able to participate in games that require you to crouch down and duck. Some of the experiences that handle this well are Hover Junkers that provides a head model adjustment for people of different heights, and he’s also able to play Space Pirate Trainer. The little human mode in Job Simulator will also raise the head a foot and a half to provide access to both children as well as people in wheelchairs.
Van Buren recommends against placing objects on the ground as they’re essentially game-breaking bugs for people in wheelchairs, but also generally not ergonomically comfortable for most people. Placing buttons at waist height when standing has the side effect of being fairly comfortable for people are sitting or in a wheelchair, and that highly placed objects are completely out of reach. There are Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations that most federal and government buildings have to follow, and virtual reality environment developers should keep some of these design constraints in mind.
He says that it’s easier to take accessibility into consideration at the design stage rather than afterwards, and so the sooner that you account for mobility constraints, the better. There are tradeoffs of including kinesthetic gameplay mechanics like crouching, crawling, bending, reaching up that may provide deeper sense of presence for able-bodied people who are of a certain height, but Van Buren asks to consider whether or not some of those mechanics are absolutely vital to the game that it’s worth making the game inaccessible to a portion of people.
Van Buren had heard my previous interview with Katie Goode about accessibility, which encouraged him in that there were other people who were thinking about making VR more accessible. Katie wrote up a great blog post talking about the accessibility design considerations in Unseen Diplomacy, and Adrienne Hunter also wrote up a great overview of designing VR for people with physical limitations.
For a more in-depth discussion on “Making VR and AR Truly Accessible,” then be sure to also check out this Virtual Reality Developer’s Conference panel discussion featuring Minds + Assembly’s Tracey John, Radial Games’ Andy Moore, Tomorrow Today Labs’ Brian Van Buren, and independent designer Kayla Kinnunen:
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So when I was at the Intel Buzz Workshop in July, I was sitting at the back of the room when a man in a wheelchair came up to me and said, oh, hey, you're Voices of VR. I just wanted to thank you for a podcast that you did with Katie Good talking about accessibility. So I proceeded to go outside with Brian Van Buren and to ask him a little bit more information as to who he was and what he was doing in VR. And so it turns out that he's a narrative designer at Tomorrow Today Labs and he's been looking at specific issues of how do you create VR experiences that are more widely accessible for people who have disabilities and for people who are in wheelchairs. And so we had a whole discussion talking about some of his lessons learned and some of his suggestions for VR designers for specific things to take into consideration. And I also had a chance to talk to him about what it's like to be a man in a wheelchair and to be able to have access to virtual reality technologies and what that now allows him to do. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR podcast started as a passion project, but now it's my livelihood. And so if you're enjoying the content on the Voices of VR podcast, then consider it a service to you in the wider community and send me a tip. Just a couple of dollars a month makes a huge difference, especially if everybody contributes. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Brian Van Buren happened at the Intel Buzz workshop that was happening on June 22nd, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:05.662] Brian Van Buren: My name is Brian Van Buren. I am the narrative designer at Tomorrow Today Labs. It's a small VR studio based in Seattle. We opened up in August of last year. I'm also a wheelchair user. I'm a paraplegic. My injury is at the L3, L4 level. So I'm unable to walk or stand period. And the project that we're working on is for the HTC Vive, which is a room-scale VR setup. So the way that works, for people who don't know about the Vive, there are two lasers in objects called lighthouses, which, using IR reflectors on the HMD and the controllers, that determines where your body model is placed within that space. As a wheelchair user that's a bit problematic because in a lot of cases people are designing spaces for standing users which may mean that they're putting interactable objects within the space outside of the reach of someone who's four foot six I suppose is my height as a wheelchair user or But at that stage, I only have so much reach that I can do. And if you put objects onto the ceiling or a switch or a lever that I have to pull that's out of my radius, I can't use that. So I've been trying to design my way around that in the projects that we're working on, but also raise awareness of disability needs. Needs not only for people who are in wheelchairs, but also people who don't necessarily fit the 5'10, 5'11 body model that everyone's designing around. Children, if you've ever seen a five-year-old try to operate in a VR space that hasn't been designed for, that doesn't have an adjustable head height or a way to change the head height, you see that they are incapable of functioning within that space. One of the fun things at Tomorrow Today Labs is our 3D artist slash art lead is six foot seven. So one of the spaces we had designed, because nobody had thought about it, had a ceiling that was about six foot eight. So he could very easily raise his arm and go out of the space and it was, ah, this is dumb. So between the two of us, we actually have a pretty good idea of how to create how large or how small a space should be and where to place things within that space to make it comfortable for everyone.
[00:04:25.276] Kent Bye: Yeah, I did an interview with Katie Goode of Triangular Pixels. They did an experience called Unseen Diplomacy, which tried to have some wheelchair-accessible functionality. And I think that's the first experience that I've heard on an HTC Vive room scale that was really even trying to take into consideration what would it be like to have wheelchair-accessible type of experience. So I'm just curious if you're able to go through that experience and what that was like.
[00:04:51.618] Brian Van Buren: Yeah, that I haven't yet, but actually it was that interview that you did on the Voice of VR podcast that I first started to see that there were other people in the community who were thinking about this. From what I've read, there are certain physical actions that are asked of you and that require you to be on the floor or look under things or do these sorts of things, which just aren't comfortable for a person in a wheelchair to use. Their solution to that is to allow you to bypass the content. which isn't ideal as a wheelchair user. I would much rather have the capacity to advance in an experience than to not have that available. So it's a design decision that the designers and the game makers need to create. Is the physical action you're asking the user to take, is it possible by all your users? And also if it isn't possible by all your users, is it really that important? I know that our sound designer loves to sit on the floor and play around in the space that we've created, and that's fun and all. It's kind of a toy boxy kind of thing, but it's for someone who isn't capable of getting out of their wheelchair and moving to the floor, that's not really a good idea. One of the things we've found, and I tell everyone this, putting objects on the floor is no fun for anyone because Having to bend over and pick something up repeatedly, there's ergonomics issues with that. You may be dealing with someone who has knee or hip problems. Our two founders, when they created the Game Jam game, which is serving as one of the basis for what we're doing, one of the first people they showed him to was a heavyset man. He was about 350 pounds, and having to lean over and pick up objects was very uncomfortable for him. So in room-scale VR, I tell this to everyone, you cannot assume the dimensions of your user. So you can't assume the head height, you can't assume the dimensions, how do you design your way around that? For us, one of the things we did is, for example, making sure that if you've got a control panel, because in room-scale VR, it's better to have physical objects for people to interact with, because that's the fun of being in VR. is have large, easy-to-reach buttons that are at about shoulder height for a sitting person, but at about waist height for a standing person. One of the, in the prototype we're working on, there is a dispenser that comes out from the wall that pours balls into it. And we had to tweak it several times to try to make sure that it was at the proper height. Initially, they had put it too low for standing people, and they felt like, a tall person felt like they had to hunch over. And doing that repeatedly was never gonna be fun. But if it was above what was shoulder height to me, then I was reaching over into it. And that also creates an ergonomically unpleasant action for me to take. So after tweaking it, we found that shoulder height for that was a good space. We found that for control panels. having them in about a one foot space of where my head is and having large buttons as opposed to small granular ones. And then there's consideration for colorblind people making sure that the buttons were red. and green rather than red and blue. So there's a lot of different things that we can do to make these spaces more accessible. VR spaces are not designed to be traversed or explored. They're meant to be inhabited. So we understand that we can make these things inhabitable by everyone by just putting them in a little more consideration. It's much easier to do at the design stage than afterwards.
[00:08:30.048] Kent Bye: Yeah, there seems to be this principle when you're talking about accessibility, whether it's design for web browsers or for virtual reality, is that by taking into consideration for trying to design for as large of a population as possible, then you can end up creating better design for everybody. But then at some extremes, sometimes there may have to be compromises in terms of having to make a less rich experience for people to have full access to be able to experience that. So there seems to be some spectrum of different decisions that you have to make in terms of designing VR experiences. So I'm just curious, as you've been starting to navigate this, what are some of those realms of things that you've found that by taking into consideration someone who's in a wheelchair, it creates a better experience for everybody?
[00:09:19.234] Brian Van Buren: One of the fun things about it is that living in the United States and also other nations have similar laws that require a certain amount of wheelchair accessibility in physical spaces. you know, not just ramps or doors or size of things, but the real world is a good example of how to design an accessible space for people. You know, go into a government building, the tables are going to be at a certain height. There's a whole set of rules based around constructing real environments to make them wheelchair accessible. One of the things that a lot of experiences, space pirate trainer, hoverjunkers, are experiences which are competitive shooters. And what happens is that a lot of people make physical motions in order to dodge incoming shots or kind of roll around. And it's a very aerobic, active experience. The way to make sure that that's okay for everyone is to create a static and understandable hitbox. So for me, if I can still move around in the environment, maybe I'm not going to have as rich an experience, but I'm still going to have a rich experience by being able to maneuver in the environment, kind of dodge to the left and to the right. I've seen people get very aerobic with it, rolling on the floor and having a wonderful time. You've probably seen gifs of it on the internet. I worked for several years before going into the indie scene at Nintendo and started there right when the Wii was first launched. And the controllers on the Wii were very, very limited in their motion sensing capacities, but that didn't stop people from physically acting out. It didn't stop people from having very exaggerated motions. I remember one of the fun things is working on like the Just Dance. games and you could very easily play the game just by waggling the controller in one way or another without doing it, but a lot of people had much more fun performing the actual physical motions that were being shown on the screen. I think in VR it has the same sort of thing where the positioning of the controllers and the positioning of your head matters, but it doesn't necessarily require you to be as physically active in order to do those things, if that makes any sense. I can still dodge my head to the left and right and have a bullet go past me, as well as someone who's doing a barrel roll onto the ground or, you know, splayed out on the ground trying to dodge these things. So, part of that is, it's just learning how to operate within those experiences. I do great at Space Pirate Trainer, I do great at Hover Junkers, without having to do all the silly stuff that the person next to me might be doing, so.
[00:11:58.489] Kent Bye: What are some of your favorite VR experiences?
[00:12:01.275] Brian Van Buren: You know, one that I always go back to because it tickles my funny bone in the right way is Job Simulator. Just because, you know, I tend to write for humor, you know, as a narrative designer, which I always tell people that's kind of the confluence of design and writing in gaming. And in VR gaming, since we don't have the same storytelling techniques that we may have in other gaming genres, such as control over the camera or that sort of thing, you need to design things more comprehensively. And I always point to Job Simulator as like, that's how you made an entire world tell a story. That's how you take everything within the world, there's the sense of humor is readily apparent, the actions are readily apparent, and it's reinforced by the audio, it's reinforced by the visuals, it's reinforced by how you physically interact with the objects. So Job Simulator is always the one where I say, this is a narratively designed experience, as opposed to maybe, I also enjoy Space Pirate Trainer But there's not a whole lot there other than shooting aliens, and there's not a whole lot of variety to the aliens. The space is attractive, but what is it telling you? What are you learning from being in that space? So that's the example of maybe a VR experience, which is still a fun and enjoyable VR experience, but doesn't necessarily tell a story in the same way the job simulator would, using all the tools at the availability. Fantastic Contraption, another example of that, where having to create unique interaction models and also having to create menus in VR. Menus in VR are one of the big challenges that everyone's facing. A static, hanging-in-the-air list of text is no good. Having a, where's your toolkit? Well, they've got a little floating cat that has all your tools on it. If you want to switch between spaces, you put on a helmet and that takes you into a different room. You want to change levels, you pick up a model of the level and put it into a space and then you take the helmet off and then that space has been loaded. These are robust, clever solutions to designing a game world. One of the things about VR is we've definitely gotten to the point where nobody can see everything. So yeah, those ones are the ones that, as a narrative designer, I use as examples, so I spend more time with those. Another thing that Job Simulator did just recently is they added what they call their shorter human mode, which is a mode that's designed for people who are short. or wheelchair users, and basically you flip a switch and it raises the head and controllers to a certain height, which is, it's a one size fits all solution. I think it just increases your head height about a foot and a half in the space, which still gives you access to everything. But this was something they had to put in later after all the videos of people with their children trying to play Job Simulator and not being able to do stuff. So it's a functional solution, it's not an elegant solution. The Hover Junkers guys allow you to adjust your head height right at the start of the game. So they base your body model based upon where your head is within the space. And it was interesting for me the first time I ever tried that in the final version, you could have even gone shorter than where my natural head height was at. So it was nice to see. It was something that they'd had in previously. This was like the very first version of Hover Junkers I got to play way back in the day had that. So they designed the game based upon that partially because your head height was also going to set your hitbox, and that's not an issue in Job Simulator.
[00:15:40.036] Kent Bye: Interesting. And so, for you, what are some of the things that you run into a lot as a wheelchair user within the VR community that is something that you would just like to perhaps address to the larger VR community, like if they could do these one to three things?
[00:15:55.820] Brian Van Buren: Oh, geez. You know, it's hard because creating VR experiences, since we're at such an early stage in it, It's just having awareness that if you're creating a room scale space, if you're creating something for the Vive, you cannot assume the dimensions of your user. So in order to create a robust space, you need to have different users. Playtest the heck out of your thing. We're lucky because we've got a wheelchair user and a six foot seven guy, and we're able to kind of figure out what the quote unquote maximums are, or the farthest part of the derivations. I see so many people working in VR that are all a bunch of 5'10, 5'11 people designing a space for a 5'11, 5'12 standing person. And that's not always going to work out. So just have people taller and shorter than you. get into your space and try to interact with objects and take those problems seriously. Controls, you know, buttons make them larger rather than smaller. You don't know exactly, you know, this may be a person who has some form of paraplegia and maybe don't have complete use of their hands. And, you know, that's going to become more and more added as we get a more robust hardware solution for people with quadriplegia and using that. But make sure your spaces function for a wide variety of body types. Make sure the actions you're asking your user to take are ergonomically pleasing. Again, with Space Pirate Trainer, with people flipping around and doing barrel rolls and doing all that stuff, I've seen so many people who try to do something and then, you know, turn an ankle. I've seen, I saw someone turn their ankle playing Space Pirate Trainer. So, understand that the physical actions you're asking people to take need to be designed to have proper ergonomics. Ergonomics is going to be very important in VR spaces. So having different users understanding the principles of ergonomics and having multiple different users try your experience before putting it out into the world. These are two things I would like to see more of. If there is going to be a problem in either of those things, the users are going to find it. So it's much better to deal with that stuff ahead of time than try to hack it in later.
[00:18:15.887] Kent Bye: And so we're kind of in this transition from the information age to the experiential age. And I really see that virtual reality is a technology that's going to be able to give people this even wider range of experiences that are possible within our real reality. But I'm interested from your perspective of somebody who is in a wheelchair and kind of limited to the range of experiences that you can have in real life. Maybe you could talk a bit about what these virtual experiences are opening up for you.
[00:18:43.558] Brian Van Buren: Well, one of the many things I find very interesting about VR is the capacity to take a person and put them in another environment that our brain thinks is real because the stimuli we're getting mimics what we get in the real world enough so that we have the same autonomic and action responses to it. You know, in VR, if you hear a noise behind you, you generally want to turn around because we've got 50,000 years of oh shit tiger programming in our brain. Because you hear a noise behind you, it could be a tiger. You better go check. But for me, being someone who is a wheelchair user, I like the idea of going on guided tours in VR. The VR Everest experience, I'm never going to be able to climb Mount Everest. That doesn't make me all that different from most humans on the planet, but I'm never going to be able to do that. But having that option, is cool. And for me, even having the option of if I'm in a castle in England that only has spiral staircases to get up to the top, how am I going to be able to get that vista? And there's just more and more things, you know, even historical things going back in time. It's very unique. I think virtual tourism, virtual field trips, those sorts of things are great, especially for someone like myself who maybe I don't have the opportunity or the physical well-being necessary to climb up the side of a mountain, but in VR I can go there and it is an experience that I am believing I am at. It is definitely useful. I mean going beyond even the more fantastical things that you can do like flying or being a giant monster walking over a city and getting all those more esoteric experiences. You can have real life experiences and you can share real life experiences. One of the things that I am probably going to do once I can get my hands on one is just strap a 360 camera to my head and just record all day. Now, let everyone know, this is the sort of things that a wheelchair user faces every day. And to me, that's instructive. I get to learn new things and go to new places and see the way different people exist in the world. That's a great thing and that's something that's unique for VR and for anyone that's great. For a person who maybe has restrictions, I can't, it's funny, at the location we're at right now, the elevator's busted. I couldn't go up those stairs to get up to the second and third floors. In VR, I could. Just something that simple and just something from real life. Yes, the elevator's busted. Well, in VR, that doesn't matter, does it?
[00:21:20.543] Kent Bye: Well, I'm curious about this dimension of social VR, because have you had a chance to have experiences in social VR? And I haven't seen a lot of avatars that are in wheelchairs. And so you're projecting as an able-bodied person within virtual reality. And I'm just curious if you've noticed a difference of your social interactions being in these virtual worlds with an able body versus in real life.
[00:21:42.639] Brian Van Buren: And some of them, like one that hasn't been announced yet, so I can't say much about it, but it's being designed for the Vive. And it builds your body model based upon your height. And so when it was building my body model, it gave me the child body model, which I thought was very humorous. And we all had a good laugh about it, but it was something that they hadn't thought of because in their mind, at a certain height level, they just would put a child model. And the thing that was also odd about that is since I am a full grown adult and have much longer arms, it was the hand model, the arms weren't where they were supposed to be. So I was moving outside of the range of the body model. So the arms were all wavy and silly looking, but it illustrates that that's part of it as well, is the understanding that there are going to be seated people. If you don't have a seated body model, what is your other option? So, I don't know. I think that social VR is going to be a huge step. I think that it allows for a deeper degree of interaction than you would get otherwise, partially because you have hand interaction, partially because of these other things. Head movements that give the non-verbal cues that people are so used to coming across. I'm very active with my hands. On my Twitter profile, it says excessive gesticulator, and that's true. I just wave my arms around all the time. And that creates a higher degree of immersion. I think there was one that I had heard of where basically in a VR experience where everyone was sitting around a campfire and then interacting with each other. It was kind of like a who's the bad guy thing and you would have to ask questions and you could accuse other people of being, you're the monster here. I was like, you're the one who did it. And so, and everyone in that one was seated. So everyone's kind of put in the same space and you're just gesturing using, I believe that was one that used a control pad. So you're really just selecting gestures with the control pad and your head based upon how you tilted your head was the attitude that your head had, but it was still a very unique experience. And that's a way that it doesn't matter. Everyone's sitting in that experience.
[00:23:53.245] Kent Bye: Well, there's a certain amount of height that you're used to of seeing the real world, and I'm just wondering from a sense of presence if, you know, you go into a VR experience and suddenly you're standing up straight and having a perspective that you don't see, if that's kind of jarring enough for you to take you out of the experience.
[00:24:09.268] Brian Van Buren: You know, you get used to it very quickly. As someone who's done that, you know, like I was saying with Job Simulator being at the, you know, graduated one and a half foot higher thing, It was, at first, it was a little disorienting, but it didn't take me very long to get used to it. And there are experiences that are based from where you're like the Godzilla viewpoint. There are ones that people are working on where basically you're a giant monster trampling through a city. And people aren't having a hard time with that, even though suddenly they've got this grossly distorted body model. So, you know, for me personally, that being said, that's for me. I don't get a whole lot of nausea from VR, mostly because I'm dealing with high quality experiences, but I'm not exceptionally sensitive to the motions. I don't have high motion sensitivity. So I don't know. At first it took a little bit, to be honest, it did take me a bit to get used to it because my camera, my real life camera is set at a different level. And then when you're put into a world that the camera is different, it does take a little while to get used to it. But I didn't feel any more disoriented and was able to operate. And to me, being able to operate within the space, it certainly makes up for any sort of initial confusion.
[00:25:22.009] Kent Bye: Yeah. And so for you, what do you want to experience in VR then?
[00:25:26.231] Brian Van Buren: I think social experience is going to be a lot of fun. I like the idea of being able to chat with people in VR in a more expressive and connective way than you can currently. I like the idea of, as a narrative designer, storytelling in VR is going to be very interesting. I kind of want to see how that evolves. I know that we're having to operate outside of the normal game design in order to tell stories now. We're having to change our paradigm to more of a cinematic paradigm. And then, of course, the cinematic people are going, oh, crap, we don't have control over the camera anymore. So I want to see how we tell stories in VR and what are the stories we can tell that we couldn't before. And I also like the fun physical actions. I mean, there's one of the things at this stage in VR, what people like about the HTC Vive is having realistic physical actions. Our studio, Tomorrow Day Labs, created a physics plugin It's called Newton VR for Unity that allows you to be able to have a more realistic interaction model based off real physics, because we found that the original interaction model that we were getting when we were developing this stuff last year, just objects didn't act correctly. And that was a big immersion breaker. We were able to create a tool that allows people to do that. And for me, just being able to do things like that is super neat. Being able to throw a ball at something and have it act the way a ball would work in real life. Or, say you're in a slightly lower gravity environment. Well, what's it like throwing a baseball in one half Earth's gravity? It goes really high, so it's still a lot of fun. The physical interactions are a lot of fun, and I think that that's the sort of thing I like doing. I like the idea of being able to play beer pong in VR, those sorts of things. There we go, beer pong VR. We can make a social gaming out of that.
[00:27:25.924] Kent Bye: Have you thought about designing a VR experience that was explicitly for people who are in a wheelchair?
[00:27:31.967] Brian Van Buren: I have had an idea. I had a long time ago kind of an idea for a game where the protagonist is seated in a wheelchair, and basically the entire game is from that viewpoint, basically lowering the camera and having the controls actually be controlling the wheelchair. And I've kind of gone back and forth about that. I mean, it's a fairly, you know, the experience I want to give people is pretty big. I'm kind of spending time on the side kind of prototyping that, but I think designing for a person in a wheelchair is less interesting than creating an experience from the perspective of a person that's in a wheelchair and making that available to everyone. That I find much more interesting. Creating spaces for people in wheelchairs is a wonderful thing. I don't want to act like, ah, that's no big deal. It's just there are ways to design experiences and spaces that make them accessible for people with mobility impairments or disabilities. And we're learning those things and we're trying to disseminate them. So my hope is that that kind of becomes the norm for that. I like the idea of being able to take someone from an experience they wouldn't be able to have otherwise and put them into a position where they are required to operate from a viewpoint, you know, among the sleep, the video game that takes place from the perspective of a child. You know, it's like, where's the value in that? Well, it changes your perspective and uses that unique perspective to tell a story in a way that otherwise wouldn't be as easy to do. And it creates a certain mindset from controlling a camera and controlling the way that your body moves throughout that space. So to me, that is interesting to me, creating something that not everyone can do, that not everyone ever gets to experience. I mean, we all get to experience crawling around as a child, but as an adult, to be able to be put in that space is very interesting to me. And I think that's more the value of what I would want to do in VR is take everyone and put them into my perspective. And I think a lot of other people will be doing that, where it's like, this is the experience I have. I don't have the experience of a refugee in Syria. I don't have the experience of a farmer in Thailand. I don't have the experience of a cowboy in South America. But I could be given those experiences in VR.
[00:29:54.624] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality is and what it might be able to enable?
[00:30:01.154] Brian Van Buren: Well, virtual reality and augmented reality as well, I believe they'll eventually converge. But virtual reality, we are just now figuring out what we can do and the ability to put people into curated experiences and curated spaces that they can't or wouldn't get into in the real world is wonderful. What I'm really excited about is the productivity aspect of these things. I think that there are certain fields that once you get your hands on the VR version of it, it's going to change them dramatically. 3D modeling. Tilt Brush is such a wonderful thing as a toy, as an artistic expression, but the actual things you can do with Tilt Brush, the other night we were having a meeting and we were talking about how to in VR create a satisfying feel to slide like a server rack into a wall. And we couldn't get that satisfying feel to it. It would just go in or go out. You didn't get that extra stage. And our lead engineer went into Tilt Brush and drew it all out how it would work. It's like you take this momentum, and then you'd carry it into this momentum point and it works like that because he was showing how you would do it if you were like putting a curved clip into a rifle like on an AK-47 so that was kind of the challenge and so he's like here he goes from here to here and then it transfers the motion And I was just like, as it was going on, I was just, this is it. This is the new normal. This is society now. And these are the ways we will be able to show people how to do things, to physically illustrate ways to do stuff. It just blows my mind. And the other thing that I always like to end whenever I'm talking about Tilt Brush with, you know, I'm in my early forties, I kind of grew up making drawings in MS Paint on little Apple IIc's back in my junior high school computer lab and that kind of got me interested in art and got me interested in design and in programming and pursuing a career in technology in general and video games in specific. I cannot wait to see what happens when we have five-year-olds who grew up with Tilt Brush. Who are five years old today who are going to grow up with the Tilt Brush experience. What are they gonna do? How are they gonna change the world? That just, boom! That'll blow your mind if you think about it.
[00:32:23.716] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?
[00:32:28.360] Brian Van Buren: Just be aware, you know, for all the VR designers out there. And don't think just because you're working on the Rift and because everyone's in a quote-unquote seated space there you can get out of it. You still need to make spaces that work for everyone. It just takes a little bit of forethought in order to do it. Designing for accessibility is not hard. It just requires forethought and requires you to make decisions in very early stages and stick to them. But there's so many smart people working in VR and AR right now that sometimes they don't think of that sort of thing. It's always one of those things I find interesting. So awareness is going to be the most important thing in terms of accessibility in VR. We're still learning. Everyone else is still learning. But the time to make these decisions is now, as opposed to hacking them on three years from now.
[00:33:19.687] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.
[00:33:21.127] Brian Van Buren: Thank you very much. And again, it was the podcast you guys did with Katie Goode that was one of the things that let me know that there were other people out there thinking about this. And that was very important to me as a designer and as a, I had never even thought about, I had always been so focused on, Oh, I got to make all the content work. It's like, wait, no, you can actually bypass. And I'm like, wait a minute. That's true. Because if you're creating something that if you can't advance into the next stage, that's like a game breaking bug right there. So at least being able to advance through it and it kind of opened up a different way of thinking for me. So hopefully there are people will listen to this and get thinking about that kind of stuff themselves. You know, I hope anyways, you know, we got enough smart people. We just need to think about it.
[00:34:08.282] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, that's my hope too. So thank you so much.
[00:34:10.644] Brian Van Buren: Thank you. Thank you.
[00:34:12.513] Kent Bye: So that was Brian Van Buren. He's a narrative designer at Tomorrow Today Labs in Seattle, Washington. And he's also working on a VR experience to share his perspective of what it's like to live being in a wheelchair. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, I think one of the biggest points that Brian was trying to make is that you cannot assume any of the dimensions of your user. So you can't assume the certain head height or even if you do have the head height, you can't necessarily extrapolate the body dimensions from that. For example, Brian was saying just because he's about four foot six in height with the VR headset on doesn't mean that he's a child and should have a child's body. He's a fully grown man. in a wheelchair. And so some of the games that he says treat this well is Hover Junkers. And Hover Junkers, you're essentially doing a combative first-person shooter with other people. And so there's a lot of ducking and moving behind boxes. And so you're trying to make some sort of translation for how you can move your physical body and how that translates to the virtual body. So you have a virtual body model that goes beyond just your head height and that you have a little bit more control over. And it sounds like he's able to do this in Space Pirate Trainer as well. So another strategy that other games have used, like Job Simulator, is that they simply just add some height to your head height so that you could pop up and have the perspective. And so that is something that Brian said is a little bit of an inelegant situation because, you know, really you kind of want the whole scene to be recreated but that's also quite a lot of work so it seems like it's a pretty good workaround to be able to have access to the content without requiring the developers to completely change their entire gameplay if they want to have different objects at different heights. One of the other things that he's saying is that if you're going to be placing buttons is that first of all make them so that they're big enough so that people can actually touch them but It seems like putting things at the waist height seems to be a good compromise between people of a whole range of different heights. It's fairly comfortable to be able to reach slightly over the head for someone who might be in a chair, sitting down, or in a wheelchair. And just reaching down at the waist height just is also comfortable for someone who's standing up. So Brian says that there's a lot of ergonomic issues with placing things on the ground and that it should just generally be avoided. And I think that this is actually something that Oculus has been recommending. And it's a little bit unclear as to whether or not it might be some limitations in the camera-based technology and whether or not it's going to be more of an issue for Oculus as to whether or not people are going to be losing tracking if they're trying to pick up stuff off the ground. But just as a matter of ergonomics, and for people who may not have a body that is well suited for them to be able to lean down and pick stuff up, then it's just, from his perspective, something that should be generally avoided. Another approach that he mentioned, like the interview that I did with Katie Goode back in episode 338, is that unseen diplomacy seems to take a approach of just bypassing the content that is not going to be compatible with somebody who is requiring them to get on their hands and knees and to look around. So Brian would classify this as a game-breaking bug for him. He's not able to actually do that action physically, and so he would not be able to progress in the game if he got up to that point. But having the option to bypass that content and to move on is, again, not a perfect solution, but at least it allows him to have access to the other portions of the game and to still be able to experience it in that way. It was also interesting to hear Brian talk about how there's just a lot of federal and government regulations for public spaces that they are wheelchair accessible. And so they have to provide some way to either have ramps or elevators to give access to people who have impaired mobility. And just thinking about that is like, well, as we're creating these virtual spaces, then how do we bring some of those same design principles into these virtual spaces that we're also creating? And so that we can make it so that it's accessible to people who may have a limited range of mobility, but also may not be able to push different buttons. Now in terms of cultivating presence, I think it's pretty universally seen that being able to stand up and move around and potentially even crouch and crawl around things is something that as you do that within VR and have the capability of doing that, then it actually can be a presence multiplier. But at the same time, if you're working with different constraints of people, maybe they don't have enough space to stand up, maybe they have some sort of impairment or they can't physically stand up, then how are you going to design your experience so that people can still potentially participate in some way? And I think that having these different abstractions of, you know, making small movements, but then having that translate into the full range of motion And the virtual experience, I think, is one good way to do that. And there is another accessibility implication of Oculus primarily supporting front-facing cameras. It means that if people don't have the capability to be able to move all around and be very mobile, like people in a wheelchair, for example, then designing for front-facing in order to get things into the Oculus Home Store can actually make the experience more accessible for people who can't turn around or move into large spaces. So being able to design the experience both for Oculus and for RoomScale can actually have the side effect of increasing accessibility. One of the things that Andy Moore said in a roundup of different accessibility quotes is that a lot of people who are doing Vive experiences aren't always necessarily wearing headphones. And so if you're relying upon audio cues within an experience, then If people aren't wearing headphones, then they're not going to necessarily be able to localize where that sound is coming from. And it's also possible that some of the users are deaf and they can't hear at all. And so relying on the user interface by using these audio cues is also not going to be accessible for them. So I think generally, if you're designing a VR experience and trying to make it as accessible as you can, then there's going to be a number of different decisions that may just be an overall better design decision. But other times there may be some trade-offs that you have to make that may compromise the level of presence that you're able to cultivate with people who have able bodies. But I think the general point that Brian was saying is you have to ask yourself how important is that specific moment or mechanic to the overall experience of the game that you're willing to potentially not make it available to a certain segment of the population. So there's a talk that happened at the Virtual Reality Developers Conference, VRDC, that happened in November, where Brian participated in a panel with other VR and AR developers talking about how to make these immersive experiences more accessible. So definitely check out that panel discussion for more information. So that's all that I have for today. I wanted to just thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor to the Patreon. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So go to patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.