Will the Metaverse Be Accessible?
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This article originally appeared in the October 2022 edition of Inside Equal Access.
People in the metaverse will be able to move throughout digital spaces. They will be able to socialize with friends, play games, sell and buy virtual goods, and hold business meetings. Currently, internet platforms allow users to create a virtual identity, but they only work on that platform. The metaverse could allow users to create a persona that can be taken everywhere in the virtual world with whatever virtual items they own, like clothes or cars.The concept of the metaverse is still fuzzy and it incorporates many inconsistent elements; and the question whether the metaverse will be an accessible place for people with disabilities is still unclear.
Gus Alexiou believes these new virtual spaces could be challenging for all users but particularly for people with disabilities. Adopting accessibility features from the very beginning when designing a new space, digital OR physical, can help in accommodating people with disabilities. “For example, looking at the ideal weight of a headset through the lens of elderly and disabled people who might struggle to wear a bulky headset for a long period of time would be the ideal starting point.” Gus Alexiou states. But metaverse creators are spread across the entire world and have no centralized communication or accountability.
The metaverse spaces need to accommodate deaf, blind and visually impaired users by adopting a captioning system and accommodating screen readers. However, it is not clear how these features could be successfully developed in that world. The design of VR is supposed to be intensively graphical, so how do you equally effectively portray this world to vision impaired users? Some are working to overcome these challenges by making use of touch and haptics.
Motor and dexterity impaired users could have difficulties doing pinches, swipes and hand gestures that might be required to navigate the metaverse. It is not clear whether the devices that we already use to make the internet accessible will be easily transferrable to the metaverse. Assistive technology (AT) is developed by thousands of independent companies and rarely built with integration to the metaverse in mind. How can AT possibly be standardized to the point that it is usable with all metaverse devices?
What about personalized on-screen identity in the metaverse? Will people with disabilities hide their disabilities or proudly show their identity as an individual with a disability?
What about personalized on-screen identity in the metaverse? People will be able to create and choose whatever identity they want; will disability identity be presented? And how? Will people with disabilities hide them or proudly show their identity as an individual with a disability?
And accessible technology takes valuable development time. Tech giants are already racing to be the first company to introduce their technologies to the market. This might lead to neglecting accessibility concerns. The determination of metaverse accessibility will also depend on how quickly universality is adopted into the technology.
The good news is that tech companies like Meta, Apple, and Microsoft are already backed by strong internal accessibility teams. This means that there is a hope that accessibility will be considered during establishment of the metaverse. Taking the principle of inclusiveness into account by the designers of the metaverse will make this technology accessible for all users.
The promise of the metaverse is to radically transform the digital and global reality, including the economy. To achieve this dream, the metaverse needs to be to be shaped responsibly from the beginning to include all real-life users.