Virtual Reality & Accessibility: Interview with Hannah Gillis
Earlier this year I worked as a research consultant for Hannah Gillis and Ben Peck of ILMxLAB, a division of Lucasfilm focusing on the creation of immersive entertainment combining the talents of Lucasfilm, Industrial Light & Magic, and Skywalker Sound. I surveyed people with disabilities about their experiences with virtual reality (VR) and asked for ideas on how to make it more accessible. Hannah and Ben used some of these findings for a presentation at the 2017 Game Developers Conference.
To celebrate Global Accessibility Awareness Day this year, here is my interview with Hannah Gillis about VR accessibility. This interview has been edited and condensed.
So what prompted you to do this online survey of people with disabilities about their VR experiences and what were some of your expectations of it?
Hannah Gillis: So we worked with you, Alice, over the course of a few months as inspired by our lessons learned Trials on Tatooine [a VR experience by ILMxLAB] We had taken Trials on Tatooine to Star Wars Celebration in London in 2016, and it was by far the largest showing of Trials on Tatooine that we had done up to that point. Because of the nature of Trials on Tatooine being a experimental project, we hadn’t done comprehensive play-testing up to that point. So at Star Wars Celebration, we had the opportunity to share it with a whole diverse group of people, over 2,500 in fact, and with that, a variety of people with varying disabilities. And while Trials on Tatooine did hold up well, it could’ve been better, and we learned how we can do better in our future VR experiences, not only for that diverse audience, but really to use diversity to make the entire experience better as a whole.
I think that first of all, any expectations we had were far exceeded above and beyond because it was such a new area for us…We didn’t expect to reach as many people as we were able to, thanks to you. I think we ultimately had a quantified it as 79 respondents, and that was just a huge number for us of people who have an interest and a stake in virtual reality accessibility. So the sheer numbers was a huge learning. And then we were interested in learning how people want to use virtual reality, how they do use virtual reality, and what are the interesting hacks that people use to make those experiences accessible to them.
Yeah, I was really impressed by the huge diversity of like the stories that people shared. I remember we asked participants to be specific about their recommendations and people gave a fantastic level of detail on ways to improve VR. So was there anything from the survey that you learned that was new or surprising that you didn’t really consider before?
Hannah Gillis: I think that I agree as far as the specificity, that people provided us such detailed examples. We absolutely learned new facts and new lessons to take into account that we hadn’t learned from Star Wars Celebration, such as how headphones might rub onto your hearing aids and cause feedback, for example. Or how people use the Windows magnifying glass to enlarge text on your virtual reality experience and then actually take off the headset, look at the screen, and then put the headset back on.
I think we were so excited to hear about people’s enthusiasm and openness and willingness to try virtual reality. Like, the general response was so positive and welcoming, and that was something I didn’t know what to expect. And I was just so pleasantly happy about that.
I think the message was really encouraging, especially for the VR industry, that there are disabled people all over the world who are intensely interested and want to engage in VR, but for a lot of different reasons or some design elements, it’s inaccessible. So that there is this whole market out there of people that really are interested. They’re like everybody else. They really want to get into the Star Wars universe.
Hannah Gillis: And I think that it’s a seed that just keeps on–it’s been planted–and it keeps on growing, whether I’m sure– We had a recent announcement about our partnership with Starlight Foundation to put virtual reality into children’s hospitals, for example. So how can we use our learnings and expand upon our learnings for people in a hospital bed, for example?
What were some of the big takeaways for the audience from your presentation at GDC with Ben Peck?
Hannah Gillis: So our presentation in general covered various areas of research that we’ve done, including architecture, set design, and theme parks. And so those physical design areas that we can pull inspiration from when implementing accessibility in VR. And then it touched, it summarized what the survey that we worked together on. I think the big takeaway from GDC [Game Developers Conference] was, again, a huge, welcome response from the audience members. We received a lot of encouragement and made a lot of connections with people who are involved in this community or want to be involved in this community. And since then, we’ve kept a running dialogue with these people more and more to see how we can collaborate and continue improving. So it just could not have been more fruitful.
What do you think are some of the challenges for the VR industry in getting more people to integrate accessibility as much as they can at the outset? What are some of the challenges that you’ve seen?
Hannah Gillis: Since GDC–we’ve been giving our speech and sharing our findings with more and more communities and companies as much as possible, to get the knowledge out there. And one question that we encounter every once in a while is, “Yes, but isn’t accessibility features expensive or costly or timely? And do they eat into your budget?” It’s a “nice to have,” so to speak, is how their question might be phrased. And it’s interesting because certainly, we had researched that mentality with non-VR accessibility for general games. And so we definitely can relate to that foundation in the sense that so many of our findings, if you can anticipate them at the beginning rather than the end, it really does not cost you the time or the money or the headache or whatever you are worried about with your project.
And I can say now, we actually are seeing that real-time within our group. We shared Meet BB-8 at the Star Wars Celebration in Orlando just a few weekends ago. And because of the survey and the research so far, we were able to add accessibility features easily.
Hannah Gillis: It was amazing! And it was just, it really– So specifically, there’s a moment where you can crouch down, and BB-8 will come up to you, like a trusting moment, and let you pet him. So if you are sitting down already, or maybe it’s difficult for you to crouch, basically, if there’s no change in your head height, then you can also either toggle, like double tap your controller to initiate him coming to you, or an operator can do a keyboard command, and he’ll come to you. And being able to share that experience with people and know that they were receiving the exact equivalent magical moment that we had designed for really made it all worth it and made it come together.
In a lot of ways that there are people in the industry who still don’t realize how inefficient it is to leave out accessibility from the outset, that it’s so much more work to do it backwards. Retrofitting always costs more money, and I think it’s a huge argument to really embed as much as you can at the outset.
Hannah Gillis: Yeah, those VR experiences that we’re doing now, new VR experiences that aren’t yet released, we’re just prototyping…we’re like in gray box world. So we have cubes basically. That’s our artwork, and we can see it so much quicker now, of like, “Oh, gosh. If I’m sitting down, I won’t have the right sightlines. We need to fix that.” And it’s just that quick. And so that’s what I’m most excited about is really, I think the knowledge is the power. So if we can get that out there and build upon it more and more, that’s where I think a lot of the traction will come.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with me about, I guess, the future of the work that you’re doing or just anything else that you wanna talk about in terms of accessibility?
Hannah Gillis: I guess the really summarizing point is that we acknowledge that this is an open conversation; it’s part of an ongoing dialogue. We’ve always really felt like virtual reality is in and of itself a very multi-disciplinary medium. And just the way that it’s multi-disciplinary, we think that it can pull multi-industry inspiration for this, for accessibility research. And I think that we’re gonna see more and more cross-over, more and more application. And I think it’s just gonna be the moment, I think, where we can take virtual reality to a whole new level of impact, and I couldn’t be more excited.
It’s just been a whole new world for us, and we are so, so, so, so excited to be learning about it.
Hannah Gillis is Project Manager for the Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group within ILMxLAB, where every day she enjoys producing artistic and technical multi-disciplinary teams in the creation of Star Wars virtual reality, real-time cinema, theme park entertainment, and narrative-based experiences for future platforms. Hannah brings a background in game-engine research and development from Sandia National Laboratories, as well as an MBA in managing emerging innovation. Her passion is centered around navigating uncertainty and empowering storytellers through technical advancement.
Ben Peck is a Generalist Engineer in the Lucasfilm Advanced Development Group, where he focuses on gameplay and engine programming for interactive experiences in VR and AR. Ben has experience in both the film and video game industries: at Pixar Animation Studios, writing tools and debugging art pipelines, and at Double Fine Productions, as a gameplay programmer on projects such as The Cave and Broken Age. Ben loves working alongside artists and designers to help bring their visions to life. His favorite game growing up was Kirby’s Dreamland, and he is an avid doodler.
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