Oculus Rift Consumer Version 1: Accessibility Review

Introduction

Virtual Reality (VR) is a medium often tied irrefutably to visuals as the only possible benefit. However, in my relatively limited opportunities to try out devices that work with the technology, I realised that it has so much more potential than what most would be willing to give it credit for.

Most of the problems with VR and a lack of accessibility options, I think, could be identified as stemming from not only developers not providing those options in the first place, as with any gaming platform, but also a lack of easily available opportunities to talk with VR companies and developers about trying both the hardware and software sides in person pre-purchase.

But enough on my thoughts as to the current state of VR. I now have a chance to shed some light on the accessibility of the technology and various applications that utilise it at the current time, thanks to my obtaining an Oculus Rift. With that, let's see just how workable VR is.

What's in the box?

Given the Rift I have at my disposal for this review was a pre-owned unit, I'll only list what I found in the box:

Testing

Setup

The first thing I thought I'd do was test out the software that I'd need to run the Rift and get it set up. Hoping against hope that it might be workable with screen reading technology including Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA), I was frustrated when all I heard was "Oculus window". However, once I alt tabbed out and back into the software and used the arrow keys to navigate, I found to my pleasant surprise that the interface, at least on the sign in screen, was near completely readable.

The subsequent screens of the account creation process were very straightforward in terms of navigation with keyboard controls and I had my account set up within a very short time. Calibrating the various settings was also accessible, giving me the option to skip items that I didn't want to cover such as choosing a profile picture. The privacy settings were a little confusing to navigate as the radio buttons disappeared at times when navigating around the window, but with some trial and error I got through with relatively few issues.

When you've either opted to add a payment or skip the step you're asked to add an Oculus pin, which was straightforward to do. After this, you're presented with a safety video which it might not surprise you to learn has no audio description or written equivalent other than the Oculus warnings page linked to in the setup process. On closer analysis however, it seems that the information contained in the video might appear down below the player, presented as follows:

Read the Warnings†Manual Be sure to read the warnings and instructions before†use. Be Aware of and Clear Your†Surroundings Clear your play area and be aware of your†surroundings. Designed for Age†13+ Rift is not suitable for children under†13. Choose Comfortable†Content Choose content that is best for you based on our comfort†ratings.

After the safety video, you're presented with a simple "let's get started" prompt and, after pressing next, you are given some brief but common-sense advice (don't drop your headset, use the provided lens cloth etc). Then comes time to set up the Rift itself, when you're presented with the following instructions:

Connect Your Rift Headset and Oculus†Sensors Plug in the cables for your headset and sensors now. For the headset, youíll need to use one HDMI port on your computerís graphics card and one USB 3.0†port. For the sensors, be sure no more than two sensors are connected to USB 3.0 ports. Connect any additional sensors to USB 2.0†ports.
For those who may be unaware, telling the difference between an HDMI port and a USB port is relatively doable, but determining a USB2 from a USB3 port is far less straightforward. As a result, I skipped the setup process to perform it at a later time with sighted assistance.

Skipping setup presented me with an "are you sure?" dialogue, indicating that if I didn't complete setup now, my unit may not work correctly.

Looking around the app

From that point on, the Oculus app outshone its somewhat rival Steam in nearly every possible way, allowing me to enter my library, find what games I had available and install them all without requiring a single hint of sighted assistance, seemingly with faster download speeds as well.

Even returning to setup was a matter of looking at the top of my screen to see a link to "set up now".

Connecting the cables allowed me to see, in text, that everything worked correctly (after some installation and reinstallation of drivers via the device manager and the pre-supplied driver file in oculus/support/oculus driver.exe or similar). The rest of the setup was easy to work with screen reader-wise, until it got to a point where you had to put the headset on to see the instructions. At this point I got sighted assistance to complete the process. After that, it was time to try a few experiences.

Getting around in VR

Without the touch controllers, it was frustrating to say the least to get around without assistance, as the main method of navigation was through looking at objects and pressing a on the Xbox One controller or the select button on the Oculus remote (hereafter just the remote). This could be improved via TTS for controller navigation or detailing what specific element you're looking at, as in the accessible realities project demos.

A useful factor that offsets this is that you can launch experiences using keyboard commands as your computer, whilst still rendering VR, is also able to allow you to access your desktop. This allows you to launch experiences without looking at them physically, thus reducing the burden and need for sighted assistance

One very frustrating element is the non-standardisation of interfaces. Most interfaces work by looking at the element you want to use then pressing either the Oculus remote select button or the A button on an Xbox controller. However, for one particular experience we tried, namely Disney Movies VR, the interface method feels closer to a mouse-based interface.

This is because if you look at interface elements for long enough, you'll eventually select them (even if you don't want to). This reminds me of interfaces where you had to drag your cursor over an item and leave it there to select it. There's seemingly no way to adjust this and it makes it very difficult to receive sighted assistance, as the only way you can avoid highlighting options is by looking down, thus simultaneously removing the options from view.

Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be a common standard, though it was troubling to think this interface style may reappear in future.

Audio

Although the visuals don't mean as much to me as they might do to most VR users given my complete lack of sight, the audio in the rift, combined with the head tracking, is certainly impressive. Even turning my head rapidly from left to right didn't seem to cause any issues with the tracking facilities in the unit. The headphones integrated into the headset are surprisingly high quality, though if you want something a little more noise cancelling, you can remove the supplied earphones and use something of your choosing.

Enabling Steam VR with the Rift

Although Oculus has some interesting experiences like Dream Deck and Lucky's Tale, some others I was interested in were seemingly only available via rather unusual methods (such as in-app downloads) or via Steam. The issue with enabling the Rift to work with the latter software, from an accessibility standpoint at least, is the fact that the checkbox in the Rift's settings section doesn't actually appear as a checkbox in terms of the standard Windows control. Hopefully this could be easily resolved, but currently it requires sighted assistance to enable access to unknown sources.

Testing with Steam VR

Thankfully, Steam VR apps create shortcuts on the desktop, so launching them was straightforward. That is, of course, after you launch Steam VR which isn't easy to install by any means. I had to have sighted assistance to install this separate component of Steam, though I did read that (apparently) if your headset is connected you should be prompted to install Steam VR though I've not found this to be the case.

Once I'd got Steam VR installed and the Rift plugged in, I finally got everything working. At least, that's what I thought. There was no way to get Star Wars: Trials on Tatooine working that I could find. I hope I can resolve this soon and if I manage to, I'll update this review.

Oculus Touch

The VR experience, I realised after a little while of using the remote and an Xbox controller, isn't really complete without a way to fully interact with objects. Thus, I purchased a set of Oculus Touch controllers.

Unboxing

The first thing to do is remove the outer cardboard sleeve, which is simpler than you might think. Place one hand on the outer sleeve and push the internal box with the other. If you have difficulty pushing the box the whole way through, you can pull the sleeve off whilst bracing the box against your hand if you'd prefer.

Looking around the edge of the main box you should find an edge that's not directly attached to the inner area. This should be placed facing downwards and towards you.

Pull the flap upwards and towards you, then push the top of the box away from you.

The items closest to you once the box is open are the controllers, which can be easily removed by holding the large circular plastic elements of the controllers and lifting upwards.

The next item you'll find is the sensor, removed by holding the base and pulling firmly. Doing this should result in the sensor popping free.

The final item in the box is actually contained directly in front of you as part of the padding of the top of the box. Find the small cube-like structure and you should find a tab. Pull this towards you and lift the whole flap upwards and away from you.

Lift the inner cardboard cube upwards and towards you and it should come free of the box. The plastic-wrapped batteries might fall out of a small cardboard holder in the inner cube, but the remaining items including a Rock Band VR guitar connector and a very small safety booklet, are also within this flimsy structure.

The controllers have elastic bands round the wrist straps, which can be removed simply via rolling them along the straps until they release. The sensor has plastic film over both sides of the lens which can be pulled off as individual pieces.

The sensor cable is attached to the base via a further piece of plastic. This can be removed by looking for a small tab sticking out of it, which can be pulled (whilst holding the area it's stuck to in place), releasing the wire if done correctly. The wire isn't quite free yet though. Holding the wire in one hand and gripping one of the two plastic tabs sticking out of the side of the coil with the other, pull it firmly until it completely unravels. Do the same with the other side and you should then have an uncoiled cable to connect to your PC.

The Rock Band VR guitar connector requires that you remove the plastic film from the bottom as well, facilitated via a small tab on said plastic film. Grip the connector in one hand and pull the film with the other to remove it.

With the unboxing out of the way, time to test the controllers.

Registration

After reading the information on pairing controllers on the Oculus website, I realised that most of the setup process should be relatively straightforward. There was, however, a matter that I hadn't resolved, namely that of installing the batteries into the controllers first.

Installing the batteries

When looking at the oculus controllers up close, it's almost impossible to see where you might insert one of the two provided batteries to power the small device. However, after a little sighted assistance, I discovered that the process works as follows:

The actual setup process

Due to the system's tendency to route all audio through the ports on the rift whenever you plug it in (which is a solvable but frustrating issue) and my wanting to simply verify if the controllers worked as expected, I had sighted assistance for the setup process. However, like most of the Oculus setup processes, the most complex parts (such as lining touch controllers up with points on a diagram or similar) would require this assistance anyway.

The process is fairly involved though the explanations are relatively clear, at least in terms of the text. Apparently, the images used to illustrate what has to be moved where, in terms of using a second sensor, aren't as clear, so it might take a bit of experimentation to get everything working as expected.

The "Guardian System"

The "Guardian System" (hereafter referred to as GS) is a method of conveying visually where the edges of your space are.

Setting said GS edges is an interesting process, as here we get one of the first examples of haptics in the controllers. Holding in the trigger and walking around the space whilst holding the unit at the periphery of the area allows you to tell the app where you shouldn't be, in essence.

Once done, a demo launches and allows for the testing of the controllers in a half tutorial, half experience environment.

The oculus App Installation Process

Backtracking for a second, the Oculus app was installed on the PC I was using to test the device when I received it. After a few technical issues, I decided to reinstall everything, including the OS. Consequently, I did not retain the Oculus app, meaning that I could test out how easy the app would be to install without sighted assistance.

Unfortunately, the resulting answer is that you'll need sighted assistance to pass the first screen. The graphic that allows you to proceed is not recognised, even with OCR or Narrator. It's a shame since, as has previously been demonstrated, once the app is installed, most of it is accessible. The further screens to actually install the software, including selecting to choose a location for the Oculus library to install also require sighted assistance.

Once the actual install process is done, requiring no intervention on the part of the user, you're presented with a screen that indicates that you can log in with an Oculus account and set up your Rift.

Sound familiar? It's the screen referenced towards the beginning of this review, which is pretty much completely readable.

Back to the touch controllers

After setting up GS, it was just a matter of launching an app that would work with the controllers.

Robo Recall

Robo Recall (Recall hereafter) is a game about bringing in malfunctioning robots, or rather, recalling them. This mostly involves, as far as I've played at least, bringing some in for analysis, but mostly obliterating them with a combination of weapons and fists.

The sound design in this title is top quality and very much geared towards an arcade aesthetic, with characters almost narrating and commentating simultaneously in places. The enemies all have unique sounds, though aiming and taking them down without sighted assistance is next to impossible due to the way VR targeting works currently. If there were some kind of aim assist as an accessibility option, this could allow a greater level of player interaction from those who, for instance, have restricted mobility in their arms or head but still want to enjoy the fast-paced battles.

The elements I really came to appreciate are tied into the weapons themselves, specifically, the ability to mix and match between pistols and shotguns in the first levels, as well as use your fists, with panning moving with the controllers and your head tracking. If you, for example, reach over your right shoulder and take a shotgun from its virtual holster, you'll hear a distinct metallic indication for successful holding of the weapon.

If you then reach down to your other hip in front of you and are successful in retrieving a pistol, you'll hear a different metallic indicator. Then it's time to blast away, with guns that seem to be almost deliberately too loud in places making scrap of enemies that sound, at times, reminiscent of battle droids from the Star Wars prequels. Aiming at enemies, as previously stated, requires sighted assistance, but when you are obliterating the rogue robots, it's so satisfying that it almost doesn't matter as much as you might think.

All in all, as much as there are interface issues, discussed a little later, as well as the issues with defeating your robotic enemies, this game is definitely an enjoyable experience that has potential in terms of accessibility, particularly given the sci-fi setting.

The touch controllers, with their haptics and responsive tracking, are just what I was hoping they'd be in terms of this experience. However, it was time to put them to a slightly different test.

Rock Band VR

Though it might be said that Rock Band as a franchise has largely had its day, Rock Band VR (or RBVR from this point forward) is a whole different game compared to the stereotypical "plastic instrument" experience. However, you will need one of said plastic instruments to play, but that's a relatively small point if either you're deeply invested into the series already or decide to look for bundles on Amazon or other distribution sites.

Setting up the game requires the installation of the RBVR guitar connector on the back of a guitar's headstock and the insertion of the right-hand touch controller into that connector. This process is relatively simple in the sense that you remove the plastic film on the back of the connector via a tab sticking out of it, then line up the three nodules with the holes in the back of the top piece of the plastic guitar (see here for a list of compatible guitar hardware).

Once the connector is on the back of your guitar, pull the strap of the right-hand controller through it so that the controller is facing upwards. The controller should only fit in properly one way and once done, secure the strap around the head of the guitar, as described in this official video.

The final element you'll need, with Xbox One units at least, is the Xbox Wireless Adaptor for Windows, not covered here.

If you have all the hardware set up and the game installed, you're pretty much good to go.

Launching the game

The first thing you're thrown into is a tutorial. Unfortunately, a fair amount of it relies on being able to see the "song map" and the colours/chord shapes required to progress, though after you play your first full song, you'll be able to press start on your guitar and move down twice to quit show using the strum bar. From there, press the first fret once then move to the confirmation option with the strum bar and press the fret again.

The rest of the tutorial before the point you have to quit is fairly well described and you shouldn't have much difficulty in completing it. It's a shame that there's currently no way to indicate the required song map components without sight, though that could possibly be added in future.

The game's interface is interesting because, for the first time I could remember, I could actually hear when I was highlighting areas of the interface in relatively consistent places and use this to navigate around in a fashion. Granted this did require a little sighted help, but that's to be expected with VR being the way it is. To clarify what I mean by this (though directions given here are only an example) if I wanted to go to quickplay, I could look to my left slightly and press the first fret to select it. If I wanted to go to classic mode, the option might be slightly to the right of quickplay and turning my head to the right slightly would take me there on selection. There are no audio cues specific to each mode, though this could be added in future as well.

If you want your friends or those assisting you with VR to hear any instructions or in-game audio, the Oculus software fortunately allows you to make this a reality, if you'll pardon the pun. This functionality is under devices and by using the mouse to activate the Rift icon you can adjust specific settings including the one to "mirror VR audio". The fact that the VR setup, when plugged in, reroutes the audio from Windows is rectified by going into control panel and setting your default device again, a process not covered here but one that needs to be repeated when you plug your Rift in.

For RBVR and other games referenced later, the additional lower frequencies afforded by a larger set of speakers can further enhance the experience as well as allowing for greater ease of assistance.

RBVR is a really solid game, even if you might not get the highest score due to not being able to see what it wants you to work with in terms of notes. The sound design is even better than Rock Band 4 and the fact that previews play out of speakers in the ceiling, which actually sound higher than head level, is an impressive addition.

Looking around at the drummer, which is how you start the song, is also easier to do than I'd expected, as the placement of the drummer in your space seems to be consistent. This means that once you know how far you need to turn your head, you can start a song without any need for sighted assistance.

Raw Data

Thanks to the team at Survios, I managed to get a hold of a copy of Raw Data, a science fiction-oriented shooter (though it's not always a shooter depending on your chosen hero). This game needs the touch controllers, but if you want to know what you're getting into before you start you can read the official HTML user guide for the game.

Starting the game prompts you to accept a license agreement which required sighted assistance, though admittedly there are audio cues so it's possible that interface could be tweaked to make for a less frustrating experience

Movement Systems in VR

I'm going to talk about Raw Data and Robo Recall in the same proverbial breath for a moment, simply because the issues they share are similar and likely not constrained to just these two particular titles.

No matter how good the head tracking and touch controllers might be, that doesn't detract from the fact that movement systems currently centre around the user being able to see what's going on in the headset, as opposed to relying on audio alone to navigate the in-game world.

With both of the aforementioned titles, teleportation as it is known is the primary method of movement and allows you, amongst other things, to progress. Whether this is to move to your next objective during a mission, or starting a mission in the first place, it's one of the main causes of frustration for me during VR usage.

There are certainly ways of solving the lack of awareness of where you're going to teleport to, possibly including an option to press a button to auto-teleport to a new objective. However, these would likely vary on a per-game basis.

More on Raw Data

Unlike Recall's gun-toting fast-paced action, Data takes more of a story-driven approach. In terms of accessibility, this is where the cracks begin to show, with no clear indications of where to go for sighted assistance and unfortunately patronising NPC messages being delivered more rapidly than I'd argue is necessary. That's not to say the game isn't worth playing, however, as what story I've managed to play through is interesting and motivating enough to keep going, even if the characters (at the intro stage) are limited in terms of their development. Given the amount of praise this game has received, I look forward to seeing what the game offers once you complete the tutorials.

I will update this section of the review once I have progressed further with the game, but I like what I've heard in terms of atmosphere, sound design and scoring.

Batman: Arkham VR

Given my enjoyment of the Arkham series, I wanted to try out Batman: Arkham VR. This experience isn't as accessible as I might have hoped, but there's one element of setup that really threw me in a positive way. The setup is actually voiced, in the sense that you're told what buttons to press to continue and advised that the experience can be played either sitting or standing. Selecting these was achieved by sighted assistance, but I think with a small amount of testing myself I could probably activate those icons myself. The sound design and tracking are, again, excellent and I look forward to seeing future endeavours from this team in the VR space, especially if they include accessibility features.

Now, onto the final experience in these tests.

Creed: Rise to Glory

From Survios, developers of the aforementioned Raw Data, comes a game that I actually got the chance to play at E3 before its release, a boxing title based around the Creed film franchise called Creed: Rise To Glory. I'll refer to this as RTG from here on out. When you launch the game, you have to agree with a license agreement and privacy policy, both of which can be scrolled through using the analogue stick on your right-hand touch controller, with the right trigger being used to activate the confirm button.

it is possible that the left-hand controller works for these same functions, but I worked with my right-hand controller for this part of the process.

An interesting point of note here is that the haptics start as soon as you are working with buttons like confirm or similar UI elements, providing a prompt similar to Doom 2016 that there is something to interact with. However, there is no information about what you're activating via any kind of text to speech module at present.

I did have sighted assistance to get into a free play fight, but once I was in the game I was able to punch and retaliate with ease just through the audio alone. I hope that Survios are up for adding accessibility features to this game to improve the experience for gamers without sight, as the intense cinematic boxing experience is currently, I'd say, unrivalled even by consoles.

The sound design and scoring are all very well thought out, feeling more like an arcade game crossed with a movie. I had better results with the game's audio running from an SSD as opposed to a mechanical drive, though it was only really the music that suffered in this scenario. I'd suggest, if you can, playing the game on an SSD for best results.

If you want a game that gives you a workout and is pretty entertaining even if you don't know what you're doing or just want to watch your friends in the same space, then definitely give this game a look.

I have not tried the story mode as of yet but will update this review when I do so.

Summary

Pros

Cons

Conclusions

Is the Oculus Rift worth buying if you're a gamer without sight? I'd say that at the moment that depends on how much you're willing to invest, as well as how much sighted assistance you'll have to make sure everything's working as expected. Some of the free experiences are good, even without touch controllers, but I'd say they are a must-have for anyone wanting to look into doing anything meaningful in VR.

Having the ability to move your head around in VR, with the action following your movements pretty precisely is a great experience, with being able to interact with objects via the touch controllers making it that much more interesting. I hope Oculus realises that having an app that's mostly accessible with screen readers is very helpful and a good start, but also that there is more to be done with regards to making setup and using the various problematic elements of the hardware and software easier without sight.

Developers of VR content should also be aware that the V in VR doesn't stand for Visuals. Feel free to explore the medium and create experiences based around the audio and haptic capabilities of the devices you're working with. Who knows, the experiences that come from those tests might make you have a new appreciation for other uses of VR.

If nothing else, I'm interested to see how much the Rift will be a part of my gaming in the future and I've been really pleased to be able to test all the items I've discussed in this review.

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