Science fiction is literally coming to life thanks to Facebook. The social media platform is transforming itself into Metaverse. It will be a virtual universe where people will do almost everything they do in the real one. Wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets, a person will become a 3-d holographic avatar interacting with others. People will actually see themselves going to the office, shopping in malls, dancing at clubs, and traveling without ever leaving their homes.
In fact, someone can even buy virtual houses in the Metaverse with cryptocurrency. Snoop Dogg, the famous rapper and movie star, is building a multi-million dollar mansion. Someone else wanted to be his neighbor so they bought a $450,000 house next to him. Besides celebrities investing in properties, they also started performing on virtual stages. Ariana Grande and Travis Scott performed as avatars to Fortnite video gamers. Merchandise spurred from those virtual performances has profited billions.
The Potential for Persons with Disabilities in Metaverse
As I wrote in Virtual Reality Open Doors But Not Wide Enough, virtual reality can provide many opportunities for persons with disabilities. In Metaverse, these opportunities have the potential of expanding. We could “go” anywhere without worrying about accessible transportation. We wouldn’t have to wait for anyone to drive us to the park, museum, or sporting event; or make sure these places have accessible paths or seating. As mentioned above, we could work in virtual offices without requesting adaptive equipment or on-site attendants. A person in a wheelchair could stroll through cobbled streets of European towns without needing shock absorbers or visit quaint little shops without asking owners to clear narrow aisles.
Wearing VR goggles, individuals with physical and visual impairments could participate in any sports, from mountain climbing to auto racing just by head and hand movements. They would not need to invest in adaptive equipment (albeit VR gear) to take part in physical activities. Just to give you an idea, VR headsets and gloves run from $30 to $1000. Adaptive sports equipment such as sit-skis, on the other hand, start at $5800 and handcycles range from $3800 to $11,000.
Thanks to those VR headsets, individuals with visual impairments could see things more vividly with a 360 close-up view and sharp color contrast.
For persons who are deaf or are hearing impaired, wearable devices (e.g. headphones) vibrate music or sound effects throughout the body. Wearers can actually feel the music. These devices use optoacoustic emission, adjusting the sound according to the user’s capability. So if Ariana Grande performs in a virtual concert, for example, attendees with hearing impairments probably could enjoy the concert better than at an in-person concert.
Interacting within the Metaverse also will allow persons with disabilities to be seen as equal by others in the virtual world. The Metaverse can bulldoze psychological barriers while building our self-esteem and confidence. We can go on virtual dates without being subconscious. We can go dancing at virtual nightclubs without others gawking or opening their mouths in amazement. We may even eat at virtual restaurants without other guests knowing some of us need to be fed, avoiding the impulse to stare while we eat.
Metaverse and Inaccessibility
The Metaverse will offer persons with disabilities opportunities that many of us wouldn’t have experienced in the real world. Like the real world, however, the virtual world also will have accessibility issues. Someone with limited use of one or both hands cannot use these controls. This is referred to as device accessibility. VR headsets have controls for the left and right hands. Many controls have buttons that are too small or hard to press. They also have joysticks that can be difficult to grab. Some companies, however, have started making virtual environments easier to navigate for persons with dexterity and mobility issues. For example, Valve offers an option for single-hand control in their VR applications. Researchers at Microsoft are developing devices so users can do abstract and metaphoric gestures to operate VR controls. As an abstract gesture, users can tap twice on a touchpad to move their cart left in the virtual store. With a metaphoric gesture, the user moves his hand left to push his virtual cart in that direction.
Persons with disabilities also will face accessibility barriers within Metaverse environments, which is referred as interaction. For instance, a virtual store may have items on the lowest shelf, which requires users to bend down to get it virtually. Since someone using a wheelchair or walker cannot bend down, a company called WalkinVR utilizes controls to resize and reposition objects in virtual environments. Right now the WalkinVR driver can work with Xbox games.
Currently, no commercial environment is accessible for persons who are blind. Prototypes to assist them in virtual environments exist, however. A cane apparatus is one example. While the person actually holds the cane, it directs then via its spoken guidance in the virtual realm. So if the blind user points the physical cane straight in virtual Paris, for example, the cane says, “300 feet to the Eifel Tower”. Another possibility is a new device called ARA, which is a wearable harness for blind persons to navigate in the real world. It guides them through vibration and poke. For instance, if a car comes down the street in the real world, ARA might send a one-second vibration to the hand. ARA or a similar system could be adapted for the virtual world. For example, such a system could vibrate if a streetcar is coming during a virtual tour of San Francisco, alerting the blind tourist.
Metaverse and its imperfections
As the real universe has, the Metaverse also will have barriers. If we as human beings become immersed in virtual living, we would find living in the real world more difficult. We might seldom get fresh air by going outside and just enjoying nature because we would be too enthralled with virtual playgrounds and virtual concerts.
As things are now, many of us are waning on our social skills because we are glued to our iphones. Video games have captured kids and many adults so much that they don’t want to engage in real-world activities like taking walks and socializing with friends. Many don’t look up from their devices, not even at the dinner table. Technology has made social, face-to-face interaction a fading trend. The Metaverse might make virtual interaction the human norm. Scary, huh?
Besides lack of real world socialization, the Metaverse might increase intolerance of our impairments. Facebook, Second Life virtual game, and Xbox games offer avatars with disabilities. We may choose avatars without disabilities, however, to reflect our virtual abilities. That might taint our self-image in the real world, unable to socialize. Moreover, able-bodied participants may expect that we do the same in the real world that we can do in virtual worlds.
The Metaverse may become a part of our world, but we must ensure that it won’t be our lives. It will be a vehicle for business, education, and entertainment; but we must not let it become the main path for human interaction. Persons with disabilities will exceed their potential in the Metaverse as long as those beyond the virtual realm keep their hearts and minds open.