When Facebook renamed itself Meta, sudden awareness of “the metaverse” – a place that doesn’t even exist yet – crashed like a tidal wave over a world nearly two years into a global pandemic. We had all gotten quite used to Zoom meetings and even parties, but what was this new thing, and did it mean we were never going back to real life?
The Covid-19 experience was eye-opening on many levels. Broad swathes of society suddenly became aware of what it really felt like to be confined to their homes, as many disabled people have been for years. We discovered how far modern technology can go to ease that sense of isolation. And, as the prevalence of long Covid symptoms became apparent, we realized how close any of us are to experiencing disability.
These lessons need to be applied now to the development of metaverse spaces. It’s certainly possible to imagine an open virtual reality world that is so compelling, some individuals might be tempted to live their lives fully in that space, but you don’t have to go that far to see how an immersive internet could liberate enormous numbers of people from physically constrained lives – if it’s done thoughtfully.
To some extent, we’ve been here before. Fifteen years ago, the new social media platforms Twitter and Facebook were a game changer for people with disabilities, who could, for the first time, connect with thousands of others in similar situations. With research showing that disabilities can have a dramatic effect on isolation and loneliness, and consequently on mental health, Web 2.0’s window to the wider world meant a lot. It provided a degree of social leveling and also facilitated activism and awareness raising – all of which have fuelled enthusiasm for the even greater potential offered by the metaverse.
While “the metaverse” is a vaguely defined term, it is anchored by a sense of physicality and presence. That could be achieved through virtual or augmented reality (together referred to as extended reality, or XR), or more simply through the use of avatars. Even when accessing metaverse spaces purely through a 2D computer screen, no headset required, the 3D movement and interactions between avatars are expected to create a feeling of real immersion. That will make it possible to enjoy a wide range of experiences – from education to conferences to entertainment – and minimize social exclusion. This could be a boon to millions of people whose life experience is constrained by circumstances ranging from physical or mental disabilities or illness to geography or caring obligations.
Of course, this great online shift isn’t news any more. The first major metaverse concert took place way back in 2019, with the pandemic only accelerating the existing trend to offer remote educational and work opportunities. But we have still only scratched the surface. The metaverse is set to open up a wealth of new career possibilities: working in fashion or interior design, for instance, might not have been realistic for someone with severe disabilities, but digital fashion and interiors present no such barriers. And as the metaverse fills with digital twins of art exhibits or whole cities, virtual travel will become a real, rewarding possibility. Virtual reality could even mean bringing out-of-reach thrills such as skydiving into reach for anyone with a headset.
But for all this promise to be realized, we can’t just build a 3D version of Web 2.0, replicating real-world limitations and current inequalities. We need to do better.
Just as metaverse architecture resembles the real world in sometimes bafflingly mundane ways (do we really need pretend plug points in our fantasy space?), real world limitations will be repeated unless designers make the effort to change their thinking.
To the extent that metaverse spaces are built in XR, they will rely on specific hardware, and the adaptations required to make those experiences accessible to disabled users are likely to be expensive. However, it’s possible that much of the equipment will actually lend itself surprisingly well to adaptations; VR/AR tech is already being put to use in near-miraculous vision aids. In fact, a lot of the existing tech can already support accessibility – but doesn’t, because developers aren’t thinking that way. For example, many VR goggles track eye movements in order to gather data on user engagement, but they could be using that capacity to provide gaze-controlled mechanics.
Other adaptive equipment, such as gloves that generate audible speech from sign language gestures or apps that describe what a camera is pointed at, could similarly be put to work to level the playing field in XR. But it’s worth reconsidering the goal. Should designers focus on finding ways to overcome specific barriers (such as low vision), or on providing multiple access routes and ways of interacting? Could abled users also benefit from having the freedom to use speech, gesture, text or eye gaze controls, as they wish? This is the power of universal design – considering the needs of marginal users results in a better product for everyone.
It’s already well understood that gaming provides a powerful tool to combat isolation, particularly in the case of those with disabilities. The metaverse can take that so much further. Designing for inclusion will mean considering, not only physical barriers to a shared experience, but also questions of representation. Can users choose or create avatars that reflect their own disabilities, if they want to? Many people with disabilities consider them to be important parts of their identity. On the other hand, users might enjoy representing themselves with a different body to escape preconceptions, or it might depend on the occasion. Can designers make it easy to switch that up?
There is another aspect to the question of inclusion. Major corporations like Meta will always be focused on profit, and may not think about accessibility unless pushed. There is a risk of deepening the digital divide, with people being excluded from the metaverse along physical and financial lines. The current tech giants also have a history of being less than trustworthy with user protection. Given that disabled people are particularly vulnerable to online abuse, an inclusive metaverse needs to take safety seriously.
While it’s fair to say that nobody yet has a fully formed safety solution, the most promising path may lie in trust scoring systems that are connected across platforms. This is one reason many observers believe “the metaverse” – a virtual space that spans multiple networks, as opposed to individual walled gardens – needs blockchain. Blockchain can support easy cross-platform identification, which will be essential not only for seamless movement (and transfer of virtual goods) between platforms, but for the kind of reputation system that can best contribute to user safety.
Decentralization as a principle is also the best way to protect user control. Instead of users being at the mercy of a corporation’s marketing strategy, they can be in charge of their own experience and set their own rules. Building on a blockchain games platform such as Ajuna Network, metaverse designers could create an inclusion-focused metaverse ruled by a DAO and establish a safe space worthy of the name. It’s past time to make this a priority.
During the pandemic, as the public clamored for relief from lockdown restrictions, employers rushed to adapt to remote working and entertainers took to remote performances, many people living with chronic conditions and disabilities felt angry. They were hurt that the isolation they had long lived under was considered unbearable; that accommodations to enable remote working or studying, which had previously been considered unreasonable, suddenly now became commonplace – and even more, that those accommodations started to be rolled back as the pandemic threat receded.
As the world slowly emerges from the pandemic, developers need to hold onto that experience and remember how it felt to be in lockdown. For many, there is no end in sight to their isolation. Designers need to put universal liberation and empowerment at the center of their plans and give real control to those users who can benefit most. By building for inclusion, everybody wins.
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