Thursday, February 28, 2008

Accessing Second Life: Universal Design in a Virtual World

Panelists: Atsuko Watanabe and Jondan Lundquist

I am posting this cleaned-up transcript on the blog, but will be happy to provide the complete chat transcript. Please contact me, Carol Perryman, at with your request. There is a lot of wonderful discussion that is not captured in the presentation text here.

Jondan's slides can be seen here.

Carolina Keats: Welcome to Healthinfo Island and to the Accessibility Center! I welcome you, and our speakers today, on the topic of universal design - Atsuko and JonDan.

If you haven't been here before, you're invited to browse the Center and tour the Island – in fact, we are happy to meet with you for a separate chat to talk about the various things going on here. And there's a LOT to say!
Healthinfo Island is a project funded by a grant from the National Library of Medicine, administered through the Alliance Library System (ALS) of Illinois.So is the Accessibility Center – it's also grant funded, also administered by ALS, specifically by Lori Bell, known inworld as Lorelei Junot, the spark behind all of the Info Islands, which now are populated by more than 700 librarians from all over the world, and which have expanded to include educators, researchers, and corporations.

Like the early Web, SL is a grand experiment: what will the future look like?
Can we do what we do now, in RL, in a virtual space? Can we do MORE? How can we harness the potential of this new world to enhance education, awareness, and community building, encouraging collaboration across all kinds of boundaries – geographic, profit-nonprofit, time, language, experience, skill, and other elements of our existence?
Lots of questions.

Here at Healthinfo, and at the Accessibility Center, we focus on health related issues. Healthinfo Island is about consumer health information – it's about empowering the consumer in their health-related decision making. It's also about supporting groups of individuals who come here to play but whose real lives often present very real needs for support…with chronic illness and emergencies, with disabilities, and with the sometimes alienating environment of medical institutions.

I am here as a medical and consumer health librarian to provide one-on-one information support to people, and to help promote awareness of what we call 'health information literacy. That's about critical evaluation of information found online and elsewhere, and also about finding information that is clear and accessible, so that there's no mystery about the side effects of medications, for example.

The Accessibility Center also has an objective of enhancing awareness. We're about helping people to know about assistive technology in RL and in SLl; about different kinds of disabilities, and providing a space for the support of inworld groups of people who are disabled. Working with this Center is my wonderful colleague Gentle Heron, host for today's event, and a number of other people. Her activities at the Heron Sanctuary, providing a community of support and helping people navigate the geography and skills needed in SL, are truly important to us here at Healthinfo Island. Making the Heron community a visible and vital part of the overall SL community IS important – it can help to change perceptions on the part of others about what a disability is, helping all to see how truly interrelated we are as humans in a world - virtual or real – with barriers to access that also bar the way to new ways of being.

I'll turn this over to Gentle now, but add my thanks to you, each, for being here with us.

Gentle Heron: Thank you Carol. Welcome to HealthInfo Island. It is my pleasure today to introduce our panelists. Atsuko, as you can see from both her appearance and her profile, is quite active in the disability community in Second Life. In RL she is an engineer who deals with accessibility issues, both in her profession and in her daily life as a wheelchair user. Jondan volunteers with Virtual Ability, Inc.'s "Heron Sanctuary" project. He does intake assessments for newcomers who are using assistive technology in SL, and helps mentors assist them in learning how to navigate through the ADLs (Activities of Daily Living) of Second Life.

This is a large and active audience. Our presenters will welcome questions and interaction. So let's give them our full attention, and learn from their experiences.
Welcome, Atsuko and Jondan.

Jondan Lundquist: we would like to ask one thing...that if you have a question, please IM one of us and we will call on you at the first opportunity....please don't shout out questions, we might miss them.

Today, we will explore the ways that accessibility and universal design principles can be applied to the Second Life experience. This virtual world has many inhabitants who have disabilities or impairments that challenge their experiences here. By being aware of these challenges and making adjustments in design of buildings, activities, and interface functions, the 'architects and builders' of Second Life can help ensure that as high a quality of experience is enjoyed by the most residents.

The Second Life experience is an exchange between the user, or resident, and the developers, builders, scripters, and others involved in making the 'world' what it is. There are several considerations on both sides of the equations that effect how the world is built and how the users experience the world, especially those users with disabilities.

On the user's side, there is, first and foremost, their perception of their own disability and how they wish it to be represented or not represented in Second Life. There are those who present themselves as they are in their First Life, with their avatars using mobility devices or other representations. There are those that appear 'able-bodied' in Second Life, yet make it known to others that they have a disability and ask for some accommodation, usually in the realm of communication.

There are those that have significant disabilities in First Life who present themselves without disability in Second Life, yet must deal with interface issues as they navigate and communicate. Each of these options is perfectly acceptable. Similarly, the individual may perceive their Second Life experience in different ways. They may reveal their disability to a close friend or two, gaining assistance in certain areas of functioning. They may choose to be an 'activist' in Second Life, making their disability the focus of their experience. They may choose to seek assistance from one or more disability awareness groups within Second Life, but appearing and functioning in the rest of Second Life as not having a disability.

I'll let Atsuko comment now from her experiences in the built environment in Second Life....then we'll talk about some solutions

Atsuko Watanabe: Thanks. Please bear with me a bit, my cut and paste is not functioning so my poor spelling will be apparent. In the rreal world I've heard many excuses for lack of access. The most common is how much it costs. And while it rarely cost much , here in SL it doesn't cost anything at all. Yet SL in many ways is not more accessible - but rather it is much less accessible in the built environment, and worse when it comes to attitudes.

I wonder why this is so. I've often been challenged quite publicly as to why I chose to represent myself as disabled in SL. It is perfectly acceptable to have a flying rabbit, but an avatar in a wheelchair is not acceptable (nothing against flying rabbits). And as much as I have tried to make contact with groups, say, of hearing impaired folks, it is still not possible to get a sign language script. And visually impaired folks, especially those using video to audio adaptive software, are almost totally excluded from SL.

Why is this??? Why is the built world of SL not more accessible, but much less so than the RL? My only interpretation is that SL is more a mirror of the real attitudes of the inhabitants than the real world. Certainly it isn't the cost.

Maybe it is a reflection of the "medical model" – that people with disabilities are broken and that they need to be fixed, and in SL, no one should have a disability because it is "Wrong" somehow. I'm not broken, I am proud of who I am.

Jondan Lundquist: A primary consideration for both users and designers is the interface and how it can be or needs to be adapted for varying impairments. One of the most frustrating issues for a lot of users with fine motor impairments is the management of their inventory. The 'click-and-drag' skill is sometimes difficult, sometimes impossible for these individuals. There are alternate methods possible in the interface, but they are not easily apparent. Changing an entire outfit, piece by piece, can be tedious, but users, through some clever inventory management can switch outfits instantly. There are also many assistive devices available in First Life that can be used to replace the standard keyboard and mouse to do these things. Another key issue that needs to be considered is the visual environment and some sort of override system for those with sight impairments.

By considering the following principles of Universal Design when planning, designing, and building within the Second Life environment, the Second Life experience can be highly enhanced for a significant portion of the population, while not affecting the experience for others in a negative way.

PRINCIPLE ONE: Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities. Guidelines: 1a. Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not. 1b. Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users. 1c. Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users. 1d. Make the design appealing to all users.

Atsuko: Notice this stage. It has the bright red edge. That is a form of universal design. It: doesn’t affect usability, but makes it much easier to see. It’s a matter of contrast.

Jondan: PRINCIPLE TWO: Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Guidelines: 2a. Provide choice in methods of use. 2b. Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use. 2c. Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision. 2d. Provide adaptability to the user's pace.

Accuracy and precision are big items for folks with fine motor impairments in SL.... you click a door to go through and then orient yourself to move....and the door shuts.

PRINCIPLE THREE: Simple and Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Guidelines: 3a. Eliminate unnecessary complexity. 3b. Be consistent with user expectations and intuition. 3c. Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills. 3d. Arrange information consistent with its importance. 3e. Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

Now, putting all this into practice is the hard part.

PRINCIPLE FOUR: Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities. Guidelines: 4a. Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information. 4b. Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings. 4c. Maximize "legibility" of essential information. 4d. Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions). 4e. Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

PRINCIPLE FIVE: Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Guidelines: 5a. Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded. 5b. Provide warnings of hazards and errors. 5c. Provide fail safe features. 5d. Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

PRINCIPLE SIX: Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue. Guidelines: 6a. Allow user to maintain a neutral body position. 6b. Use reasonable operating forces. 6c. Minimize repetitive actions. 6d. Minimize sustained physical effort.

PRINCIPLE SEVEN: Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility. Guidelines: 7a. Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user. 7b. Make reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user. 7c. Accommodate variations in hand and grip size. 7d. Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

And that goes back to attitude. It’s really not that difficult to do some of these things.