By considering the needs of people with disabilities in the design of VR-based tourism, the industry can create a welcoming and empowering environment for all, writes Dr Rehan Iftikhar, School of Business

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The virtual world is evolving at a breakneck pace with Virtual Reality (VR) technology putting its mark on a wide range of sectors. The sales of VR headsets have been on the rise, indicating that VR technology is becoming more popular and accessible to a wider audience. In 2021, the global sales of VR headsets rose by 92.1% to reach 11.6 million units, and they are projected to grow to 50 million units by 2026, according to IDC.

With this growth, it is important to ensure that VR applications are inclusive and accessible to as many people as possible. Considering accessibility from the outset in VR applications can enhance its usability for a broader audience, including people with disabilities (PwDs).

The tourism industry is one such sector that can reap the benefits of VR technology and provide consumers with new and innovative experiences. The use of VR in the tourism industry can open up new doors for PwDs to experience attractions and interact with the world in ways that were previously inaccessible to them. This includes not just enhancing their travel experiences but also being the only means for them to access certain tourist destinations.

With VR devices, PwDs can overcome traditional barriers and engage in interactive virtual travel experiences, allowing them to socialise and communicate with others in real time. VR can also enable PwDs to have the same travel experiences as their friends and family members, creating a level playing field and increasing social inclusivity.

For PwDs, VR can not only be a tool for enhancing their travel experience but also the only mean to access some tourist destinations. VR devices can help PwDs overcome traditional barriers and enjoy interactive virtual travel experiences. PwDs can also interact with other people, and even test their travel experiences before actually visiting a location.

One of the ways that the tourism industry is currently using VR technology to cater to PwDs is by providing alternative versions of popular attractions. For instance, Eftelings, a theme park in the Netherlands, launched a virtual reality version of the 'dreamflight' attraction. This version allows PwDs to experience the attraction and socially interact with other users who are using the real version. This is just one example of how VR technology is being used to provide PwDs with new and exciting experiences.

However, the use of VR technology in the tourism industry for PwDs is not without its challenges. The acceptance of VR technology by PwDs for tourism purposes is complex and requires a more specific view of their characteristics. Tourism companies need to acknowledge and give significant importance to the needs of PwDs in designing and marketing VR-based tourism products.

Several internal and external factors, such as interpersonal, intrapersonal, and structural factors, influence the acceptance of VR technology in PwDs. VR developers can significantly impact the structural factors that influence PwDs' engagement. For instance, providing easily accessible disability-related information with VR products can help PwDs familiarize themselves with different VR products and increase their engagement.

VR products should be designed in a way that makes them easy to use for PwDs. This can be achieved by customising products specifically for PwDs or by incorporating design elements that make VR easier for PwDs without affecting the price or purpose of the product. To ensure that all VR products are user-friendly for PwDs, VR designers should follow standards and guidelines for inclusive design, such as the Centre for Universal Design's seven principles for designing environments, communication, and products for people with diverse abilities. These principles include equity, flexibility, simplicity, perceptibility, error tolerance, low physical effort, and adequate size and space for each use.

VR developers should also ensure that the VR product is compatible with assistive technologies, such as screen readers, switch controls, and joysticks, and involve PwDs in the co-design process. Their feedback will be critical in encouraging PwDs to continue interacting with VR applications and benefit from the technology. VR engagement varies in PwDs, with four forms of VR engagement - cognitive, emotional, behavioural, and social - needing to be analysed.

Moreover, it is important to understand that differences between types of disabilities can play a crucial role in driving engagement with VR products. As such, developers and decision-makers in the tourism industry need to identify the VR offerings and products that are suited for a particular group and target their design and marketing efforts at this group for improved adoption.

The tourism industry has an opportunity to leverage VR technology to enhance the travel experience for PwDs. The key considerations stated above provide a starting point for the tourism industry to make VR more accessible and inclusive for PwDs. By considering the needs of PwDs in the design and marketing of VR-based tourism products, the industry can create an environment that is welcoming and empowering for all.

This article originally appeared on RTE Brainstorm