Making VR less painful for the vision-impaired

You don’t have to have perfect vision to enjoy VR, but brother, it helps. Otherwise, you’re looking at having to worry about accommodating glasses, eye tracking not working, ocular distances maxing out and so on. Stanford researchers want to make things easier for people with vision problems to use VR, but it’s not going to be easy.

Vision is a complicated process, and a lot of things can go wrong — but common afflictions like nearsightedness or an inability to focus on objects close up affect millions. Combined with how VR presents depth of field and other effects, this leads to a variety of optical problems and inconsistencies that can produce headaches, nausea and disorientation.

VR headsets often allow for adjusting things like the distance from your eye to the screen, how far apart your eyes are and other factors. But for many, it’s not enough.


An illustration from the paper shows how even with perfect vision a “vergence-accommodation conflict” can arise. With vision problems, this and other effects could be more common and more intense.

“Every person needs a different optical mode to get the best possible experience in VR,” said Stanford’s Gordon Wetzstein in a news release.

His team’s research, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes a set of mechanisms that together comprise what they call an adaptive focus display.


One prototype used a modified Samsung Gear VR.

One approach uses a liquid lens, the shape of which can be adjusted on-the-fly to adjust for certain circumstances — say, when the focus of the game is on an object that the viewer normally wouldn’t be able to focus on. The screen itself could also be moved in order to better fit the optical requirements of someone with a given condition.

“The technology we propose is perfectly compatible with existing head mounted displays,” wrote Wetzstein in an email to TechCrunch. “However, one also needs eye tracking for this to work properly. Eye tracking is a technology that everyone in the industry is working on and we expect eye trackers to be part of the next wave of [head-mounted displays]. Thus, our gaze-contingent focus displays would be directly compatible with those.”

In the paper, both commercial and built-from-scratch headsets are used to prototype various methods of adjusting optical qualities of the displays. The team tested these with 173 participants at (among other places) last year’s SIGGRAPH conference; the news release reports an “improved viewing experiences across a wide range of vision characteristics.”

This is still early-stage research: Simple vision correction is one thing, but more complex conditions like astigmatism require more complex solutions. (They’re looking into it, but it “will not be quite as straightforward.”)

Wetzstein confirmed to TechCrunch that the team is in contact with “pretty much all” VR headset makers.

“I cannot reveal any specific details about these collaborations,” he wrote, “but I can say that there is a huge amount of interest and technology developments in industry are closely aligned with our research.”

It seems likely, then, that we can expect headsets in the next generation not just to be better optically and ergonomically, but to be more inclusive and accommodating (so to speak) of those with vision problems.