Our senses help us perceive our environment. In the last 10 years, we have seen technology advance to enhance how we perceive that environment. Some technologies are even capable of simulating environments and make them feel as close to reality as possible. The realm of mixed realities, especially in the consumer-tech space is fairly new. However, trendy Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technology are leaving out a crucial 253 million people that live with vision impairments.
During my undergrad in India, I worked on an installation project aimed at experiences beyond sight, through concepts of inclusive design. We designed the installation to be interactive for both the visually impaired as well as sighted individuals. The public, interactive installation was experienced by both the visually impaired and the sighted through sonic and tactile experiences in an effort to generate empathy.
As part of our learning process, my teammates and I had visited a school for the visually impaired. At the time, I was pleasantly surprised to see the children there playing games on an old computer! I was humbled by the fun-filled conversations with them. The children, aged 8-15 years, were energetic, bright, and had a zest for life that was contagious. I learned during my visits there, that there is a spectrum of visual impairment; Some children were blind, while others were partially sighted. Their friendship was tight though, and they were very caring and supportive of each other.
They also loved their independence, especially on the playing field. I had the pleasure of watching them run around during lunchtime. The red dust tinted their socks as they sprinted hand in hand, and I realized that these were children. Just like at any other school. Yet, they had been excluded from ‘normal’ schools. Their impairment required special educational materials that other schools could not provide, due to which the kind of experiences they would grow up having would not be relatable to their sighted counterparts.
It is this variance in how they experience the world that shapes their interactions, with not just each other, but also with this increasingly visual-oriented world. My heart aches at the thought of how interaction and communication take place today, and how the visually impaired populace will increasingly be excluded from the progress of that technology.
As an interaction designer, I believe it is my duty to design meaningful human-to-human interactions. When these interactions are trending towards experience channels such as VR/AR, how might we design mechanisms that could afford the visually impaired an equivalent experience?
253 million people is not a small number. With the belief that ‘we cannot design for everyone’, we miss opportunities to innovate. Efforts by various teams, such as OXO, d.light, Simply Accessible, have proven the benefits of studying extremes, to design better overall experiences. Now, the challenge is to create a mixed-reality experience that is inclusive of the visually impaired community. What might that look like? Such a mixed reality experience might include and emphasize sounds, touch, smells, and tastes. What a transformative experience that would be - for visually impaired, and sighted alike! Exploring the channels for mixed-reality experiences can have a large impact on what the technology looks like today. This means that we need to be mindful of the ethical implications of designing for mixed-realities that are too close to reality. However, inclusive design is essential for humanity to progress together, mindfully.