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Second Life Accessibility

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As the technological age advances well beyond our wildest dreams, virtual worlds have been created that allow us to totally immerse ourselves into places and characters that blur fantasy and imagination with reality. Second Life is a virtual world created by Philip Rosedale and Linden Labs in the early 1990s. It is an open source game that allows any user to create, buy, sell and trade goods and services just as they do in the real world and retain proprietary rights to those creations. Users create avatars called “residents” that can be customized to look any way the user wants and do just about anything the user wants. They have meetings, they travel, the make friends and they…fly. Second Life has everything from virtual workspaces where corporations can have virtual meetings to theater companies where plays can be performed and concerts can be held. One of the most advantageous of uses for Second Life is as an educational venue where teachers can have virtual classrooms where students can perform environmental experiments or language lessons can be taught.


Public Demands

With the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), brick and mortar business have been scrambling to meet prescribed standards. In recent years, as more and more activity takes place on the Internet, specifically commerce, barriers broken in the physical world still stand in cyberspace. Many businesses that choose to diversify their venues to include the Internet have chosen to make accessibility a priority while others have been compelled to do so by the court system.

“As far as disability rights in the virtual world, some courts have found that the ADA requires a bricks-and-mortar operation. Since a Web site “does not exist in any particular geographic location,” it is not a “place of public accommodation,” a federal judge said in Access Now v. Southwest Airlines, 227 F. Supp. 2d 1312 (2002). On the other hand, in a case not directly related to the Internet, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated that “the owner or operator of a store, hotel, restaurant, dentist’s office, travel agency, theatre, Web site, or other facility … that is open to the public cannot exclude disabled people from entering the facility and, once in, from using the facility in the same way that the nondisabled do. Carparts v. Automotive Wholesaler’s Ass’n, 37 F.3d 12 (1994).’”1

Although controversial, these court cases are the beginning of a long battle. They send the message that accessibility is not a fight that will be easily won by either party. Virtual reality has already been confronted with accessibility issues.

“Alexander Stern's complaint accuses Sony of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act by refusing to add visual and auditory “cues” that would help him navigate his online role-playing games. He describes himself as having “visual disabilities” and “multiple learning disabilities.’” 1

Second Life has not been without criticism. As with many other businesses in the real world, accessibility was an afterthought. It was not until someone complained of not being able to use their product that the creators began to consider that someone with a disability may want to fully participate in the game. One advantage Second Life has over other virtual world games such as Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft and Sony’s EverQuest is the open source nature of their creation. Anyone can create a feature and market it outside and inside the game.

Visually Impaired

Max, the virtual guide dog, started out as a “prop” the signaled to other users that the Avatar attached needed help finding places, objects and people. He was the idea of Louise Nicholson, the first fully blind person to access Second Life. Later Charles Mountain, an advocate for accessibility in virtual reality, attached his radar scripting to the dog to create the virtual guide dog.

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Often extra articles like clothing or props are purchased in Second Life, but Max the Virtual Guide dog is free of charge and can be downloaded within the game. He is attached to the avatar by simply selecting him from the inventory and clicking on the “wear” command. It should also be mentioned that the user is not limited to a dog. They can choose a cane or a ring, depending on what degree the user chooses to disclose their imparity. The location of the accessibility box can be inserted into the map function in the game ( “AMW Mars recommended EVA to Louise. Jarek Dejavu developed EVA (Essential Voicechat Advancement) to voice SL chat. Jarek offered to give EVA free to users with visual and print-impairments—and to their helpers. Since EVA reads chat, and Max moves and identifies people and objects with /2 chat commands, Jolie1 and other blind avatars can use SL for entertainment, education, and employment.”5 The Virtual Guide Dog project is still a work in progress, expect some issues but with collaboration, improvements can be made.

Accessibility is far from complete despite efforts to create guide tools. In a study by Folmer et al., “We further identify that at least 31% of the objects in Second Life lack a descriptive name, which is a significant barrier towards making virtual worlds accessible to users who are visually impaired.”6

Hearing Impaired

As Second Life was originally developed without audio capabilities, most communication was done via text. Sound effects and noises were inconsequential to the game. As audio cabilities enter into the virtual world, communication becomes more of a challenge for the hearing impaired. Much like the real world, as voice becomes more popular in Second Life, conferences and meetings that include voice often make no provision for those who prefer not to use voice. The tools for accessibility for the hearing impaired have been present from the inception of the game. However, with voice popularity, now the hearing impaired user must identify his/herself as deaf to motivate others to use text in their presence. Martin Oliver wrote on a great project on teaching in Second Life and published a series of papers that speak a great deal on the influence of voice. (

Mobility Impaired

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ref. 2 users reported on some specialty gaming keyboards they use that may make it easier to play if one-handedness is your option. The Ergodex DX1 is an alternative keyboard that lets you customize the placement of up to 25 keys anywhere on the surface that suits you. By being able to program the keys to do what you want them to do, the problem of having to move all over a standard keyboard in order to navigate the game was solved. Keys can be moved and reassigned with changing needs. The Ergodex DX1 is a sturdy device that settles in at around $150.

They also suggested the Sandio 3D O2 mouse. It’s a mouse designed for gaming. Most of the criticisms for this mouse concerned controllers being crowded onto a small device and the controllers not being where they used to be on the users previous device. But as with anything else, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Those very things that would make some gamers complain give another gamer with limited mobility more access. The Sandio 3D O2 mouse allows the user 6 degrees of freedom on one device controlled by one hand. Difficulties with this device involved customizing movements for specific games but the makers of the device specifically state that it can be customized for Second Life in their promotional material. The instructions for initial set up and customizing of buttons is quite lengthy and will take some time to work through, but most said it got the job done for a modest price of $80.

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