Second Life (SL), the popular virtual world, has just announced that the client code is now open source. See http://blog.secondlife.com/2007/01/08/embracing-the-inevitable/.
For anyone who has not tried SL, the client creates a visual representation of the part of the SL world you are visiting. This includes the general scenery and surroundings, other avatars who are in the area, and any objects that you can interact with. The client also enables you to move around the world, chat with the other avatars, create new objects and interact with objects. The client does not run in a browser, it runs in its own window, it does not use HTML to any great extent and therefore the Web Accessibility standards (WAI) are not sufficient and in some cases not relevant.
When I first tried SL it became clear to me that the client design meant that SL could not be accessed by some people with disabilities and so I wrote a blog 'Second Life class action'. The blog has generated a lively discussion and some flaming and a direct response from Linden Labs, all of which I appreciate. The intial issues I indentified were:
- Anyone that has a vision impairment and uses a screen reader to access a computer and the web can not access SL, because even the textual information displayed in the client is not accessible by the screen reader.
- Anyone who has a musculoskeletal impairment and can not, or prefers not, to use a mouse or other pointing device can not access large parts of SL. The latest version has added some more keyboard controls but I still get stuck if I do not use the mouse.
Making the client open source will enable contributors to modify the standard client or develop specialised clients. Speicalised clients might include a simplified interface to run on a PDA, or the just announced iPhone, or it could be a version for HDTV with a much more realistic rendering of the avatars and scenery.
Of course my interest is in making the client more accessible to people with disabilities, and this may mean enhancing the standard client, but it might also mean developing a new client that renders the information totally differently. I have a small list of suggestions below and I hope that this blog may generate a discussion of more ideas for making SL more accessible.
- Include an accessibility section in the help.
- Make the help screens accessible without a mouse.
- Make the text in help sizable.
- Make any text on the client configurable for size and color, including the menus, the avatar names, messages.
- Enable the numbering of objects on the screen so that instead of having to click on an object you can choose the object by number (rather like the 'say what you see feature' in Vista).
- A text-to-voice feature for chat, in stereo so that the avatars location can be estimated, and the ability to configure the voice to fit the avatar.
- Provide a text list of avatars in the vicinity and voice announcements of entries and exits.
- Simulation of an electronic white stick.
If anyone thinks any of this is too difficult can I suggest trying the Terraformers demo, which has all these ideas and more (thanks to Eelke Folmer for this suggestion).
I am afraid that I am not a developer so I do not think I could develop these extensions but I am happy to discuss further ideas through this blog or an SL blog.