Stereo to Mono Audio Override: An Open Letter for Accessibility

Dear VR Developers,

Virtual Reality has opened new doors for folks living with disabilities and health conditions which restrict their ability to venture out of their homes. I frequently find myself homebound due to complications from my conditions, and before I discovered social VR, I was pretty lonely and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it. These days, I can escape the lonesome monotony by strapping my Quest 2 to my face and diving into a wide variety of VR experiences and games that have robust social features which allow me to “get out” and interact with others from the comfort of my own home.

As amazing as this technology is already, VR is still in its infancy. Despite its exponential growth in recent years, VR is still lagging a bit behind in terms of accessibility features for users experiencing barriers caused by their unique circumstances. I want to do my part to help fix that, so I’ve been reaching out to the many other VR users also living with disabilities so we can network and address these shortcomings.

One issue I would like to spotlight in this letter is accessibility for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. I recently published a similar article, but this letter is intended to ask developers to address a specific issue I’ve recently been asked about by a member of the weekly support group meetup I facilitate on Altspace. She mentioned that her husband is deaf in one ear, and directional audio used in VR experiences poses a frustrating issue for him. If someone stands on his deaf side and speaks to him, he can not hear what they are saying because their voice only carries through the speaker on that side.

I brought this issue to discussion in a virtual reality group I’m in on Facebook, and the VR community did not let me down! Some awesome users shared this useful info. There is a stereo to mono adapter you can use which forces stereo sound into mono for any headset which uses a standard aux cord, which should fix the directional audio issue. For PCVR users or folks using Oculus Link / Air Link, Windows 10 also has an accessibility feature which allows you to force mono audio on your system, which should override directional audio in any program.

These features are great, and the existence of the accessibility feature that allows you to force mono audio across all programs on your Windows 10 device tells me it would be possible for hardware developers like Oculus to make this a native accessibility feature on their devices as well, overriding audio settings in all VR applications so we don’t have to rely on individual developers to include this as an accessibility feature in their experiences. Of course, this feature wouldn’t be ideal for most users as directional audio is pretty important for many VR experiences, but for folks who are deaf on one side, this would be so helpful, especially in social VR experiences.

I’m writing this letter in hopes that it might reach someone in an influential position within a VR company who can put this request into action. Let’s work on making VR accessible to all! This is just one more small step we can take in that direction.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you are someone living with a unique limitation which impacts your ability to fully enjoy VR, please reach out and tell me how you think VR developers and allies can help improve accessibility! I would love to do anything I can to help.

-Sunny

✌♥🥄

Cover Photo by Eren Li from Pexels

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