Technology-mediated engagement of people with visual
impairments with nature
UCL Interaction Centre
Spending time in outdoor nature is beneficial for improving
physical and mental wellbeing. However, despite the
advancements in mobile technologies and the rise in physical
health tracking apps and devices, people with visual
impairments (VIPs) spend less time outdoors. This thesis
explores the use of technology in mediating engagement of
VIPs with outdoor nature. Through the use of qualitative
research methods, an in-depth understanding of the
experiences of VIPs in open natural spaces will be
developed. These will inform the framing of the design of
prototypes of technologies to encourage exploration and
engagement with nature for VIPs to be developed through
participatory design methods to develop.
Assistive technologies; visual impairment; nature
ACM Classification Keywords
• Human-centered computing → Accessibility technologies;
Accessibility systems and tools; •Applied computing →
There is growing evidence that spending time in outdoor
natural environments such as parks and woodlands can have
a positive impact on peoples’ mental and physical wellbeing
and improve symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression [7,
25]. Recent research also suggests that the digital
augmentation of natural environments can encourage
exploration and learning [6, 8, 18] about plant and animal
wildlife. However, the majority of existing HCI research on
interaction with nature has focused on people without visual
impairments. There is a need to understand how VIPs
experience nature and how existing technologies and
infrastructure facilitate navigation, exploration, and overall
experience of VIPs in nature.
My research explores the experiences of VIPs in outdoor
natural environments including parks, woodlands, meadows,
forests, and other open green spaces. I intend to use
qualitative research methods to develop an in-depth
understanding of the needs and experiences of VIPs in
nature. I will focus on mapping the barriers that limit how
VIPs learn about places to visit, plan their trip, and explore
the natural environment. I will then use participatory design
methods for co-creating high-fidelity prototypes of
technological interventions to encourage exploration and
engagement with nature.
In recent years, there has been a shift in HCI research
towards the design of assistive technologies (AT) catering to
the needs of people with disabilities. This has been evident
in the growing number of submissions to leading conferences
such as the ACM Computer-Human Interaction (CHI). For
example, with a growing number of submissions related to
accessibility and design of assistive technologies. According
to the ACM digital library search, the number of submissions
has more than doubled since 2010. Moreover, the steady
growth in number of submissions to ASSETS in the past 5
years is indicative of the growing research in the accessibility
A vast majority of these papers focused on visual
impairment, which is an area of growing interest in HCI. This
has led to the development of various technologies to assist
VIPs in activities of daily living (ADL) including accessing
online content [19, 27], reading books [11, 21], and
navigation [12–14]. However, little attention has been given
to hedonic experiences and motivations of VIPs in the
context of outdoor nature. This narrow focus of technology
for VIPs calls for a better understanding of what VIPs need,
their motivations, and experiences where exploration and
enjoyment of the surrounding is the aim.
MOTIVATION AND PROBLEM STATEMENT
An estimated 285 million people live with visual impairment
worldwide, of which 39 million are blind . In the UK,
there are 2 million people living with visual impairment of
which approx. 330,000 are registered blind . The rate of
prevalence of visual impairment and blindness is increasing.
In the last two decades, the number of blind people has
increased 17.6% from 30.6 million in 1990 to 46 million in
2015 . It is estimated that the number of people living with
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sight loss worldwide will triple due to population growth and
aging. [10, 23].
Loss of vision affects people’s quality of life by limiting their
ability to manage their daily activities. The impact of sight
loss on people’s lives varies based on the severity of sight
loss and the age of onset but mostly impacts the individual’s
independence. The older blind population have the highest
risk of losing independence and suffering from loneliness
and depression as a result of sight loss [16, 22].
The absence of vision also limits a blind person’s ability to
participate in leisure activities and affects quality of life. For
many people who lose sight later in life, sight loss means
being unable to continue enjoying participation in leisure
activities. Open spaces such as parks are great for
exploration, relaxation, socialising, and physical activity [2,
3, 15] but most of these places are not accessible for blind
people due to lack of appropriate wayfinding signage,
landmarks and cues to enable blind people to explore and in
general lack of facilities to support the blind visitors in
exploring open spaces [20, 24]. Research on exploration and
participation of people with disabilities in leisure activities is
limited and does not investigate exploration and open space
experiences of blind people.
RESEARCH APPROACH AND METHODS
This research seeks to answer the main research question:
How can technology encourage exploration and mediate
engagement of VIPs with nature?
The research follows an exploratory approach to
understanding the needs of VIPs and an inclusive and
participatory approach to design and evaluation of
prototypes to enhance VIPs’ park going experience. A
summary of the research approach and the methods is given
in Table 1.
Table 1: Research approach and methods
PHASE 1: UNDERSTANDING
Exploring the use of
technology by VIPs and
opportunities for leisure
In-depth exploration of the
experiences of VIPs in
outdoor nature, their needs,
barriers and strategies for
overcoming these barriers
Exploring and comparing the
needs of VIP and non-VIPs
when interacting with nature
Design of technologies to
encourage interaction and
engagement with nature
I am currently approaching the end of my second year in a
four-year doctoral program. Currently, I am conducting a
focus group study with VIPs and habilitation specialists, and
support workers. Next, I aim to conduct in-situ observations
with VIPs and non-VIPs people in parks around London
following which will lead to the end of phase one of my
research. In phase two, I aim to use participatory design
methods such as co-design workshops for generating ideas
and co-creation of prototypes with VIPs and habilitation
specialists. At the doctoral consortium I am particularly keen
to gain insight into participatory design approaches which
are applicable to and can be adapted to include VIPs.
The preliminary results from the interviews  and focus
group [in preparation] are consistent with the existing reports
in that VIPs experience a number of barriers [5, 17] when
visiting parks. Specifically, access to information prior to
visiting a park and safely whilst exploring the parks are not
met with the existing services provided. Many of the VIPs
interviewed use technology to navigate the built environment
but find the technology to be limited in parks. Moreover, the
results also suggest that there is a desire to explore nature in
open spaces and that a need for contextual information about
the plants and animal wildlife in the park, the historical
context, and wayfinding information to enable exploration is
This research intends to make two main academic
1. An in-depth understanding of the experiences of VIPs in
nature including the needs, barriers and affective
interaction (emotional and sensory experiences) with the
environment. This will be valuable contribution to HCI
research and useful for the design of AT for VIPs.
2. The design of prototypes to encourage park exploration
and engagement with nature. As there are currently no
technologies that facilitate park going experience for VIPs,
the design of technology as part of this thesis will be a
novel contribution to HCI research.
The outcomes of my research will also include evaluation of
the prototypes in parks around London which will be used by
park visitors. It is my hope that my research will make a
positive impact on the wellbeing of the VIP community in
London and will encourage people to engage with nature.
This work is supported/funded by ESPRC Doctoral Training
Program. I thank all the participants for sharing their
experiences and valuable insights to this research. I am also
thankful to Dr. Catherine Holloway and Prof. Nadia
Berthouze for their continued support as doctoral
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