By Shelly Brisbin
June 26, 2023 3:59 PM PT
Vision Pro accessibility: Great potential, but many unknowns
The Apple Vision Pro announcement was not focused on accessibility, but the product will definitely be accessible to people with disabilities. Existing technologies like VoiceOver and Dwell Control will be integral to the way people with disabilities use the product. Apple is bringing an astonishing number of accessibility features found on other platforms to the headset.
There. That’s sorted.
For most observers, Apple’s WWDC sessions about how to build accessible apps for the headset is as far as they feel the need to go. It’s accessible. Apple has once again considered the needs of users who interact with their tech differently than most do.
It’s true… but there is a lot more to say, even many months before the headset ships. And more to say about who is excited for the device and how it can actually enhance accessibility of the world in which it finds itself. There are also a lot of understandable unknowns about whether the user experience might tempt a specific person with a disability to part with $3500, come 2024.
The interaction method at the heart of Vision Pro and visionOS is eye gaze—interacting with an item onscreen by looking at it, rather than touching or clicking it to gain focus. That’s a method of interaction already familiar to people with disabilities who don’t use touch gestures or handheld input devices and trackpads to interact with their phones or computers. In many cases, an eye blink or a mouth stick are used to act on the focused item, when users can’t touch a screen or input device.
Eye gaze access is available in some, but not all contexts on Apple platforms. So Vision Pro potentially offers a better experience to someone who uses their eyes to scroll or select things onscreen. In this way Vision Pro could be the most accessible Apple platform yet for someone with motor disabilities like cerebral palsy or quadriplegia that prevents or limits the use of one’s hands. We’ll need to learn more about potential input methods for this community, but Vision Pro could be a game changer.
Lots of people have assumed that I, a person with low-vision, must be incredibly excited about using Vision Pro. After all, content will be close to my eyes, where it needs it to be before I can see it fully. No need to sit super close to a TV or use magnification devices as I sometimes do today. The movie or show is right there, just in front of my eyeballs. And like Apple TV, audio description will be available to catch what I don’t when the content has been described, as it is on Apple TV+. True enough. If there’s one thing I’ll personally benefit from when I eventually strap a Vision Pro to my head, it’s consuming entertainment.
But it’s unclear to me at the moment how using Vision Pro as a computer—gazing at a specific item in order to act on it—will work for me. Will the promised support for Dynamic Type, zooming, and bolded text be enough to make getting work done on the headset possible? I really don’t know. Depends on how zooming in on the screen changes/shrinks the amount of information available—how flexible the “Finder” of Vision Pro is, visually. And I’m doubtful I personally can rely on eye gaze to focus in on particular items. I might need to rely on the VoiceOver screen reader to a greater degree than I do with iOS.
I’m sure there will be alternatives that allow me to use the Vision Pro, but the question for me, and for blind users, too—many of whom are already excited about the platform—is whether the device will give enough of an upgraded experience to make it worth seriously considering it as an alternative to a Mac or an iOS device when I’m doing anything beyond watching a movie or playing a game.
Like everyone who loves technology, those of us with disabilities dream about things we might do with a brand-new product that are better than we can right now. When Apple’s wearable-device rumors centered on a pair of glasses, rather than a set of goggles, many or us hoped we’d be able to use the wearable as a navigation aid. We already have human- and AI-driven tools on iOS that allow us to navigate our environment, identify objects and people and read text we find on sings or documents. And specialty accessibility devices from Orcam and Envision, with four-digit price tags, already fulfill some of this promise, as do a handful of really cool iOS apps. Vision Pro includes 12 cameras, LIDAR, text recognition and a number of other features it would need to become a navigation aid for blind people.
But third party apps won’t have access to the camera, and the size, weight and battery requirements – not to mention the aesthetics –of version 1 of the headset seem to indicate it’s not intended to be used for travel.
Many have already imagined games and other immersive experiences they could enjoy on Vision Pro. And some people with disabilities seem to be taking for granted that developers will go that extra mile to support alternative display and input methods offered up by visionOS, not to mention building custom apps with audio-first content.
I’m cautiously hopeful here, because while many iOS and macOS developers have prioritized accessibility, others, particularly in the gaming and entertainment world, have not. And it seems that from what Apple has shared so far, providing accessibility in visionOS apps will need to be even more intentional. At a price point that limits the initial user base of the headset quite a bit, convincing developers to do the work of bringing full accessibility to their apps will be even more important than it has been to date. It takes time and intention, and users will need to be able to encourage developers to understand that the learning and work involved to become accessible is worth it.
[Shelly Brisbin is a radio producer, host of the Parallel podcast, and author of the book iOS Access for All. She's the host of Lions, Towers & Shields, a podcast about classic movies, on The Incomparable network.]
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