Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 12 – Release Date and Anniversary

Roughly a year ago I started work on the Unity Accessibility Plugin. That doesn’t mean I have been working on it for one year – far from it. I honestly have no way of telling how many weekend and evening hours went into it. (It was a lot, though.)

Which is why I am a little excited to see that the plugin is finally so close to release!

What’s the holdup?

If you’ve followed this blog a little, you might remember that I already released a game with the plugin.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but having released a game with it doesn’t mean the plugin itself is ready for release. It’s one thing for me to use my own plugin, and another to have the plugin usable by others. It needs rigorous testing, documentation, a nice UI, demo projects and a support forum. And then everything needs to be bubble wrapped and uploaded to the Unity Asset Store.

When?

I hate disappointing people. So I won’t give an official release date. I couldn’t anyway, even if I tried.

Remember the old saying that the last 5% of a software project take 95% of the time? And I still need to do actual (I mean paid) work, too. It is impossible to predict anything with any reasonable certainty.

WHEN???

Ok, so here’s the jist.

The documentation just isn’t done. There’s not actually all that much left to do on the code before the initial release. Oh, yes, I have a long list of things on my wish list (from localization to Braille support) – but all of those are merely nice-to-have features that can wait until after release. The documentation can not.

Documentation, including at least one tutorial video, needs to be there from the start and it needs to be good.

I’m also in the process of finding a few developers that will beta test the plugin (and documentation) with their own projects. I don’t know how long that will take, either.

Sooon…ish?

So that’s where things are at and that’s why I can’t give a release date prediction. If you’re a developer, you probably understand this anyway, buy I just felt like I should explain why I am so evasive when asked for a date.

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 11 – Editor Accessibility vs App Accessibility

About once every month I receive an email or Twitter message asking – usually outstandingly nicely – whether my Unity Accessibility Plugin will make it possible for blind developers to create games with Unity. It’s happened often enough that I think it warrants a short post to clarify what my plugin does, and what it does not do.

On the left side is the logo of the Unity Editor, on the opposite side is the Made-With-Unity splash screen that is displayed when starting games created with Unity. They look almost identical.

So similar and yet so different.

It’s a screen reader

In a nutshell, the plugin is a screen reader, specifically tailored to work with apps and games created with Unity. Neither VoiceOver nor TalkBack can recognize the UI elements that Unity renders, so all apps created with Unity are automatically inaccessible otherwise. The important part is that the plugin makes the apps created with Unity accessible, not Unity itself.

It does not make Unity itself accessible

The Unity Editor – at least on Windows – is not very accessible to screen reader software. NVDA will read the menus and the names of the individual panels, but nothing else. JAWS apparently fares not much better. For development, this is useless. This particular plugin doesn’t change that, unfortunately.

However…

Experimental accessibility for the Editor

A few weeks ago, over Christmas, I was playing around with making the Editor itself accessible. Inspired by a blind developer who wanted to use Unity to make a Go-Fish game I started to create a plugin that adds accessibility functionality to Unity. But this project is so early in its infancy that I feel almost uncomfortable writing about it at all.

Currently, this plugin adds keyboard shortcuts to read out the errors in the console, it plays sound effects when entering or leaving game mode, and notifies the developer if the compilation fails. It let’s the developer tab through the game objects in the scene hierarchy, reading out their names, how many children they have and reads out hints on how to add new children. It also makes the project view a little more accessible, reading out the names of files and folders.

But I haven’t found any solution for managing the components on a game object. Unity’s Inspector window supports keyboard navigation, but I can’t find a way to query what is currently highlighted and focused, so that I could tell NVDA (or any other screen reader) to read it out. Managing components and their values, usually in the form of prefabs, is probably the most important core feature of Unity. That makes this a major road block at the moment

Interested in joining the project?

In a finished version I would love this plugin to allow blind developers to do as much as possible with the Editor, including the creation and management of prefabs. It should also be possible to create builds for the various target platforms. And it should include all kinds shortcuts to make the most common tasks quick to do. And I would also want it to include a stack of documentation and tutorials on how to use Unity and create games with it without sight. Then throw in a demo project or two. All neatly wrapped in a free, easy-to-download-and-install package.

I would love to see this work. But I am enough of a realist to know that I don’t have a lot of time left over to put into this – at least not while I’m still working on the other accessibility plugin. If I tried to split my time between the two, neither one would ever get finished.

For that reason, this is an open invitation to other developers willing to help with this. I’d be happy to put what I have up on Git Hub if anyone was interested in joining in.
Just contact me: michelle@metalpopgames.com

 

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 9 – Is It Worth Doing?

After having spent months working on an accessibility plugin for Unity, it might be time to discuss the most basic question:

Is it even worth doing?

Are there Unity developers out there interested in using this plugin? Is it attractive for devs to make games accessible? Are there enough blind gamers out there? Is there money in this? And are there other reasons to do it?

Arnold Schwarzenegger looking at a skull like Hamlet, pondering a big question.

To Be Or Not To Be?

The Big Question: Is it financially viable?

The logic is simple: If it isn’t financially viable for developers to make games for the blind community, then it wouldn’t be financially viable to make an accessibility plugin.

Generally speaking, if enough people need or demand a specific Unity plugin, then someone will already have created one. Considering there currently is no accessibility plugin already available on the asset store, I have a feeling I already know the answer to this one.

Woman standing excitedly in front of the Unity Asset Store.

You want it? The asset store has it. Usually.

Let me say right away that I didn’t start working on this plugin to make money. But I want to look at this from all angles, including the financial side. So let’s look at it in detail.

Is there a Market for Blind Gamers?

The World Health Organization estimates just below 300 million people worldwide to be visually impaired (Source). To give you something to compare, that is a little less than the current total population of the US. The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that 22 million adult Americans have some form of visual impairment, and in total roughly 10% of the population suffer some kind of vision loss. (Source)

Those numbers are high enough to present a very viable market share, but being visually impaired and being blind is not the same thing. Out of those 300 million people, only 40 million are estimated to be legally blind, with the remainder having some vision left.

A woman wearing a blindfold is trying to use an iPad

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any statistics on how many sighted people play on their phones while wearing a blindfold.

There is no way to tell how many people in this group would benefit from a screen reader plugin, or are able to play games just fine. For the purpose of my calculations, I will go with the most pessimistic approach and assume that currently the market is capped at 40 million people worldwide.

40 Million Blind Gamers? Really?

While 40 million still sounds like a decent market, that number is misleading. Are those 40 million actually interested in games, and would there be a way to monetize games targeted at them?

About 20% of the general population play video games (Source). Assuming that the blind population shares this percentage, that would bring the number down to 8 million potential blind gamers. Those stand opposite a staggering 1.2 billion sighted gamers. That means the blind gaming market is only 0.7% the size of the one for the sighted.

Considering the size and that this number is worldwide, including many non-English speaking countries, the market just became a lot less attractive. Now we’re talking about not just adding accessibility, but localization as well, if a developer wants a chance to reach that market.

Blind man with a white cane

What’s more, according to the WHO, more than 80% of the visually impaired are 50+ years old. I was going to discount this age group at first, but according to a representative survey, this age group actually represents a fourth of all gamers. You can find that survey here.

Marketing to Blind Gamers

While age might not impact the market size, discoverability of games made for the blind does. What good is a game made for blind people, if they can’t find it? This is a real problem. I recently heard from a colleague visiting a convention for blind people that many aren’t even aware that games for the blind exist at all.

Currently, there is no way for a developer to reach the blind target audience on a broad spectrum. AdMob doesn’t offer a check box to show a game ad only to people with visually impairment. Neither Apple’s App Store nor the Google Play Store offer a way to find apps that are accessible. There are no categories or tags to sort or filter them. Blind users rely on word of mouth recommendations, podcast Let’s Plays and a number of websites that try their best to maintain lists and recommendations of accessible apps.

Logo of the Steam Game Store

Steam has great discoverability compared to Google and Apple.

Oddly enough, a simple user tag system like Steam has successfully implemented would instantly fix this problem. I mentioned this to a friend and he noted that the app stores might actually not want to make discoverability too easy. Google and until recently Apple are also selling advertisements via their ad networks, so it would directly cut down on their income.

Do They Have Smartphones? Tablets? …or Internet?

This one is a tricky question – though it seems that with the exception of Cuba and North Korea, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. The statistics indicate that we are well on the way to everybody on the planet having a cellphone: Countries Population and Number of Mobile Phones. When looking at those numbers, keep in mind that they can be misleading. Even though statistically every man, woman and child in Hong Kong owns 2.4 mobile phones – it is safe to assume that there are plenty of people there that don’t have even a single one.

In a nutshell, don’t be fooled into assuming that all blind people in all countries have phones, internet or computers. I couldn’t find any good numbers for this, the closest I found was some statistics on how many people use a screen reader. But the survey was small and possibly not representative. I don’t know if the numbers outside of the US are even statistically relevant, due to the small number of participants. But you can find the survey here: Screen Reader Survey

At least for the US, the numbers are looking good. The majority of blind people seem to use or have access to a phone or computer and internet.

Monetization – Do They Have Money?

The question might sound cruel, but I said I was going to look at this from all angles.

Scrooge McDuck carrying a briefcase with money falling out.

The WHO states the 90% of people with visual impairments live in low-income settings. This can mean a number of things, like living in an underdeveloped country with inadequate access to health care. It could also simply mean being unemployed, possibly because of the visually impairment. The numbers on the National Federation of the Blind website point to an unemployment rate of near 20% for visually impaired adults in the US alone. (Source)

Monetization – Whale Fishing

Low income might not mean poor, but it means that this group will likely not spend huge amounts of money on games. In-app purchases in mobile games usually start at 99 cents a pop. This alone will hardly ruin anyone, but those 99 cents are not where a developer’s money comes from. The money is made through whales. And with 90% of a group being classified as low-income, it’s reasonable to expect there to be less whales in this group than in the general population.

Picture of a whale smiling lazily.

If you are unfamiliar with the term whale, here is an article that explains it: 0.15% Of Gamers Bring In 50% Of The Revenue

There are other means of monetization, such as simply charging a premium for a game, and showing advertisements. The premium game approach might work well with this group, but it doesn’t fly well with the rest of the gaming world, where everything has to be free. Advertisements are even trickier. Ad providers that pay-per-click will be useless since the chances of a blind user clicking on an ad are relatively slim. Rewarded video ads however could well work, as they usually pay for watched videos and not clicks.

If there was a way to include radio ads in mobile games, it would be a great way to gain some of that earning potential back.

An Unattractive Target Audience?

Let’s conclude that the majority of blind people worldwide has or could get access to a cellphone, but can’t spend a huge amount of money on games.

The market is small, and there are few marketing options. The app discoverability is poor and the monetization options aren’t as plentiful.

UPDATE: Before you read on, you might want to check out Ian Hamilton’s comment to this blog post. He raises some excellent points as to why and how blind gamers can actually be quite an attractive audience, even financially speaking. I won’t steal his words, so this link will take you directly to the comments: Comments

Big Publishers vs. Small Developers

That makes blind gamers into an unattractive target audience for the big players – if you look at it from purely a financial standpoint. Large user bases and whale fishing are important to big developers and publishers. Our own studio has been turned down by publishers because our games didn’t offer the ability to spend endless amounts of money.

Having said that – it’s possible that publishers and big development studios are interested in accessibility for other reasons. Such reasons could be maintaining a good image. It could be due to public pressure. Or because it is the right thing to do in an inclusive, civilized, western society. Or simply because the CEO has a relative who’s blind.

Smaller developers and indies on the other hand might be drawn to this group a lot more. The market might be smaller, but there is potential for growth, and it isn’t yet overcrowded with games. In other words: There is a LOT less competition. And smaller devs need a LOT less money to be financially viable.

A homeless man sitting on the street begging - next to a sign that reads: "will code for food".

Indie developers need less than big developers to be profitable.

The design challenge of making games for a blind audience could also be attractive to indies. If the blind are targeted exclusively, games can be made without any graphics at all, which could further entice small developers, as audio can be cheaper than graphics. In fact, I’m surprised not more indies have flooded into this niche yet. Maybe my plugin could give them the push they need. (Well – one can dream, right?)

The problem of discoverability for accessible apps and games remains. It is potentially the most important issue that’s blocking developers from entering this market niche. Incidentally, it is also the easiest to fix, if Google or Apple were willing to make a minor addition to their stores, in the form of a tagging system for example.

Conclusion

Summing this up is not an easy task.
It seems that estimating the earnings potential of this market is simply impossible. Which means it’s impossible to judge whether anyone would actually buy my plugin on the asset store.

So… the prospect of earning lots of money obviously won’t be the force driving me.

So? Is It Worth Doing?

Spoilers: Yeah, I think it is.
There are other things to consider aside from financial feasibility. Here are some of them:

Self-interest.
I have often wondered what would happen if I lost my eyesight. Maybe every programmer has wondered this at some point. I need my eyes for work. Sure, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but personally, I would rather lose an arm or a leg than my eyes. If I go blind one day, I want to still be able to play games. Heck, I want to still make games. But one thing at a time. Self-interest is definitely at play here.

It might make people happy.
Who doesn’t love that? The feedback I have gotten so far is great and has motivated me like nothing else. Every time I read a positive comment on my thread at AppleVis or talk to someone on Twitter about this project, I feel the urge to drop everything else and work on the plugin some more. This is the kind of motivation that will keep you coding away the entire weekend without it ever feeling like work.

I want to see if I can do it.
That to me is a perfectly valid reason to do a lot of things, and maybe you can relate. Also, this is a missing feature, a hole that needs closing, and that keeps bugging me,

I really don’t expect to make heaps of money with it, and the numbers back me up on this. I’d be happy if the time I will have to spend on support is covered. Because that would mean I get to spend time on fixing bugs and improving the plugin

Final Thoughts – and numbers aren’t everything

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch sits on a bench shivering, while being doused with ice water from above.

Only 0.01% of Americans have ALS, an estimated 30,000 people (Source). That number obviously is far FAR smaller than the 22 million adults with visual impairments (more than 700 times, to be exact). Yet, the ALS Ice Bucket challenge raised over 100 million dollars. And what’s even more, it raised public awareness. I bet if I talked to ten random people on the street, four of them will have heard of ALS. Or at least that crazy time when everybody filmed themselves pouring ice-cold water over their heads for some charity thing. But all of them will stare at me with wide eyes when told that blind people can actually use smartphones.

Numbers and financial feasibility aren’t everything. Developers, especially the big ones, have other good reasons to consider accessibility, and public image is important to them. Did you know there is actually a petition underway to entice the Pokemon GO developers to make the game accessible? It’s worth a try, since public awareness can move mountains.

My final take on the topic is this:
If it was easy, comfortable and convenient, more people would consider making their games accessible.
And that is one more reason to make this plugin.

 

Afterthoughts

Public Exposure

Unity currently has close to 6 million registered users (Source). Of course, not all of those actually will ever develop or release anything with the engine, but many will create multiple games, again and again.

34% of the Top 1000 Free Mobile Apps in 2016 Q1 were made with Unity.
This is relevant, because it says that if there is a popular game out there that everybody is playing, there is a 1 in 3 chance that it was made with Unity. But if it was made with Unity, then it will automatically be not accessible with screen readers. Case and Point: Pokemon GO!

Imagine the public exposure the whole accessibility issue could be getting if those popular and visible apps start caring about accessibility? Even if they only care about it because I offered them a convenient and inexpensive way to do so.

Non-Gaming Developers

I also want to mention use cases of the plugin outside of gaming.

There is probably a number of users currently not using Unity, because their software has to be Section 508 compliant. I imagine this includes a lot of public institutions as well as government subcontractors, the military and serious games developers. The plugin could introduce Unity to a whole new range of users. I am not sure that the plugin is enough to make apps actually 508 compliant, but it is a start.

Unity Accessibility Plugin – Update 8 – Supported UI Elements

Contract Work has been keeping me busy the past two months, so I haven’t found the time to post any updates on this blog until today.

Still Alive, just not Blogging!

The internet is short lived – and people ask if you gave up on a project the moment you aren’t blogging about it daily (and spend your time working on it instead for example).
So here is a quick check-in-slash-update-slash-still-alive ping!

The post will be short and possibly full of typos – I’m still knee deep in contracting work and hard pressed to divide my time equally between work, play, work on side projects and sleep. The latter is drawing the short straw almost every night.

Full Windows Screen Reader Support

I recently added proper Screen Reader support for Windows to my feature wishlist after reading this excellent article by Ian Hamilton: Screen Readers and Game Engines

Ian and I had a great chat on Twitter and thanks to his article I learned about Tolk. Tolk is a screen reader abstraction library.

See, on Windows there is more than just one screen reader – users get to choose which one they prefer. Or which one they can afford. JAWS for example has a price tag around $1000.

Instead of writing custom code to support every potential screen reader out there, software could simply include Tolk. This greatly reduces the amount of code one has to write. Tolk then does the actual interfacing with the various screen readers. It currently supports six different screen readers.

This is on my future wishlist for now and I will have to investigate it further. Most likely I will release the plugin only for mobile first and then add Windows support at a later time. And then I will have to look into screen reader support for MAC. (No Linux planned at this point.)

Most UI elements now supported

As for the core of the plugin, the basic functionality of the plugin is complete for mobile. That doesn’t mean the plugin is ready to be released, just that it is working and usable. While that sounds like almost the same thing, it really is not. There is lots of code cleanup and refactoring to be done.

 

A menu screen with a label, buttons, a dropdown list, a toggle, a slider, a text edit box and a scroll list.

A screenshot of my test user interface.

Here is a complete list of UI elements that are now supported:

  • Labels
  • Drop-down Lists
  • Buttons
  • Toggles
  • Sliders
  • Scroll Lists
  • Text Edit Boxes (Windows and iOS only at the moment)

The scroll lists actually turned out to be quite tricky and need a little more coding love to handle special use cases. But that might actually deserve a blog post all on its own.

That’s it for today.
Still alive, still eating cake and still working on this plugin!

3D Audio with Stereo Headphones

Today I want to write about an audio experiment I did for a game that I’m developing using my Unity Accessibility Plugin. It’s an accessible cooking game in which you prepare food for customers.

Problem 

The game pans the voices of customers to the left or right, depending on where they are standing. But when playing the game blind, I find it hard to quickly tell where a customer is. It always takes me a second and it requires a little concentration. This might not be a show-stopper, but it keeps bugging me.

Spatial Audio could be the solution.

Woman with headphones on has her eyes closed and focuses on the whether the sounds are left, right or center.

One burger to the left, two hot dogs to the right…

3D Vision and 3D Hearing

Never heard of spatial audio? Don’t worry, I won’t delve into the details. In a nutshell, it is a clever way of playing back audio so that the listener has a 3D audio effect using only stereo headphones. It’s not even that complicated. Humans only have two ears, so stereo is technically all we need.

Just like your brain uses the differences in the images from your two eyes and gives you 3D vision, it uses the differences in sound between your two ears and gives you 3D hearing.

The picture shows sound sources that are placed at different locations around a head.

Even with only two ears, you can always tell where a sound is coming from. Image Source

Here Is The General Idea

Because sound waves travel through the air (at the speed of sound), a sound coming from your left would reach your left ear first, and then your right ear. Furthermore, your head is in the way of the sound and will block part of it. This is called the head shadow, which dampens some frequencies from the sound before it reaches your other ear. While the differences are very small, your brain picks up on them and uses this very subtle information to place the sound in the world around you. There’s more playing into it, like sound reflected off walls close to you etc, but I said I wouldn’t delve into the science too far.

If you haven’t yet, listen to the famous barber shop example (skip to 2:54 to get the idea):

 

Famous Games using Spatial Audio

A game can reproduce this 3D effect artificially, by delaying the playback on the far ear and filtering frequencies. The only requirement for it to work is that the player wears headphones.

Games for visually impaired or blind players sometimes use spatial audio to allow players to find their way in the dark. Famous examples are the Papa Sangre games and The Nightjar. If you want to check them out, get The Nightjar if you like Benedict Cumberbatch, or Papa Sangre II if you are a fan of Sean Bean (no need to play Papa Sange I first).

Actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Sean Bean inside a voice recording studio. They look cute.

The Nightjar and Papa Sangre II have pretty darn good voice acting in my totally biased opinion.

Unity and Spatial Audio

Somethin’ Else, the developers of Papa Sange and Nightjar, have written their own audio engine and their results are impressive. I wanted to give spatial audio a try in my Sandbox dev environment, before bringing it into my game. But I am fan of not reinventing the wheel. I didn’t want to implement my own spatial audio system when there are some out there already.

There are plugins for spatial audio available for Unity. Here are the three that I found in the Asset Store: Spatial Audio, AstoundSound and dearVR. The last one looked the best, but the first one was the cheapest. For just a quick test that would do. But dearVR is now on my WishList and I will be hoping for a sale in the future.

Direct Comparison

Which one works better?
The majority of people should be able to tell the direction of the voice much faster when listening to the spatial audio example.
But have a listen for yourself.

Put on your headphones and try to determine whether the voice is coming from the left, the right or from the front. How fast are you able to tell the direction? Do you need to focus on it?

Tip: After you’ve listened to the spatial audio example, listen to the stereo one for a second time. It seems a lot worse now, doesn’t it?

I know the spatial audio sounds like it is panned more to the side than the stereo one, but that is not the case – it’s just the effect that the brain creates from the sounds.

EDIT: I just learned that the SoundCloud player above doesn’t work with all screen readers. Here are alternative links to the audio files:
Stereo Results
Spatial Results

Conclusion

While the stereo panning works “good enough” for the simplistic setting of my cooking game, it seems to me that the spatial audio requires less effort to determine where the sound is coming from. For that reason, I will put in the work and switch over to the spatial audio library. The difference might not be huge, but I am hoping it will make the gameplay feel more intuitive, because blind players need to pay less attention to locating the customer. After all, the gameplay is supposed to be about cooking, not about telling direction.

Notes for those interested in the topic:

  • If you want to play around with spatial audio in Unity but are unable to spend money on plugins, good news: Unity has just released a demo Spatialization SDK. You can find it here. I gave it a quick test and it seems to be working fine. Hint: If you check out the demos, you need to select the HRTF demo.
  • If you want to read more about the topic of spatial audio, but are bummed out by all the “binaural beats for better sleep” nonsense search results, try searching for ‘HRTF’ instead.
  • The developer Somethin’ Else used to license their audio engine (Papa Engine) to other developers. While this is no longer the case, their website hints that there might be a Unity compatible version in the future (see here). There is also a forum thread that claims the engine might become open source entirely. You can read about it here.