At Game Developer’s Conference Lori Landay, a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music gave presentation on virtual reality for autistic people. She explained how developers can use virtual reality to help autistic people overcome some of their mental and social challenges. She further describe ways to acclimate virtual reality for autistic players with high and delicate environmental sensitivities. Her year long research culminated in interesting results and ideas which she shared with the audience.
It all started when over 10 years ago, she began studying “virtual subjectivity” at the college. During her studies, she came across “Second life” which fascinated her. Second life deals with the principle of how two different players, playing the same game have different experiences. In other words, both players play within the same virtual space, but each player views it differently with regards to camera angles and personalized settings. This is the first idea for her research and was to be expanded by another area.
The second area of her research drew inspiration from her colleague, Rhoda Bernard’s music program for autistic people at the college. Autistic people generally face difficulties in socializing, have problems understanding emotional dispositions. They exhibit a negative sensitivity to external factors such as loud noises. The program later on expanded to include children suffering from other mental and social disorders. Combining these two areas, Landay and her team explored ways to use virtual reality for autistic players in the context of second life. The aim was to help autistic people cope and overcome some of the social challenges and triggers they face.
Landay and her panel started their presentation with a clip of person dialing up an unusual volume dial exceeding the normal value of 10. This was followed by her opening monologue about how good it is to have dials for things such as light, sounds, and levels. And then she further expressed how she believes that whatever kind of virtual reality developers use, it can be personalized for different user experiences.
She then showed how her research aims to strike a balance between what she calls “neurotypicality” and “neurodiversity”. However, she explains this is not an easy task. For starters, Autism alone has different traits and manifestations, and every autistic person exhibits their personal experiences and reactions in a variety of ways. In spite of this, Landay suggested a few ideas that can help developers begin addressing this wide variety of users. This also help in making virtual reality more accessible to many people.
An idea she gave is to tone down the inordinate amount of sensory information they install. She pointed out that this would help players focus more on the experience with unwavering attention. She also encouraged developers to think of constructing virtual spaces like architects. And also find ways to tailor these spaces with regards to how users wish to engage their world.
Rather than ”dialing down” a virtual reality application to an autistic player’s needs, tailoring it for them can partly help them adapt to real-life situations where they can encounter sensory overload. She acceded the validity of both approaches and posited that it could not only cater for autistic people but also users who are not very inclined to virtual reality. In other words, developers can use it as an opportunity to make their products user-friendly and more accessible virtual reality for autistic players and of diverse needs.
Finally, she closed her panel presentation by urging developers to carefully scrutinize every sensory information they provide. Be it light, sound, or any other graphical detail, and whether they should consider experimenting with a sensory friendly alternative.