Johann WentzelComputer science doctoral candidate Johann Wentzel aims to make virtual reality (VR) more accessible for disabled people.

“Most of my work is in making VR more accessible for people with motor disabilities or impairments by using the input devices they already have rather than potentially inaccessible VR controllers,” Wentzel says. 

For example, Wentzel looks at how to define meaningful VR experiences for someone who only has access to a button switch and a joystick on their power chair.

Under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Vogel, Wentzel researches in the Expressive Input & Interaction (Exii) group within Waterloo’s Human Computer Interaction Research Lab (HCI lab). His experiences in the HCI lab and in work terms at Microsoft and Meta have given Wentzel a wide range of perspectives and influenced his approach to researching accessibility in VR.

His research is funded by a David R. Cheriton Scholarship and an NSERC Alexander Graham Bell Canada Graduate Scholarship - Doctoral (CGS-D).

Building accessibility into VR

“There are so many aspects of spatial technology, like VR and AR, that are fundamentally inaccessible for people who don't fit the ability assumptions that these technologies are making,” Wentzel says. “So, say if you don’t have the full use of your arms, how are you going to play a game like Beat Saber where you have to wave your hands around?”

Wentzel is drawn to VR accessibility research because it presents both a practical and an intellectual challenge. Compared to other platforms like desktop or mobile computing, VR doesn’t have widespread systems that allow people to use their preferred input devices.

Twitch streamer and eSports player Rocky Stoutenburgh using a Quadstick for gaming.

Twitch streamer and eSports player Rocky Stoutenburgh using a Quadstick for gaming.

As a result, customized or adaptive input devices like the Quadstick – a mouth-operated game controller for quadriplegics – are rarely supported in VR applications. Wentzel’s work involves creating VR input techniques and adaptation mechanisms that allow people to use their preferred input devices and have rewarding VR experiences, regardless of their input devices.

Asking the right questions

Growing up with parents who live with varying accessibility needs gave Wentzel first-hand experience with the kinds of problems that arise from inaccessible interfaces. He came to understand the importance of engaging with the communities his research aims to benefit. To start his research on the right path, Wentzel connected with people who have lived experience by reaching out to disability communities in his area.

“I really try to abide by the phrase ‘nothing about us without us.’” he says. “Not only is it important to answer questions. It’s important to know what’s the right question to ask.”

The Human Computer Interaction Lab in the Cheriton School of Computer Science.

The Human Computer Interaction Lab in the Cheriton School of Computer Science. Photo credit: Joe Petrik.

When it comes to accessibility in VR, Wentzel explains there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

“There’s such a massive variety of devices that people bring to computing interfaces that probably the best way to go about things is to design for input categories rather than for specific input devices.”

Wentzel points out that many accessibility techniques have made their way into general computing and have become widely used by the general population. He also notes that companies that develop more accessible VR games and applications are more successful. Creating accessible VR, as he sees it, is both “a morally good and an economically reasonable choice.”

To learn more about Johann Wentzel’s research, visit his website.