Will the metaverse really be as inclusive as it promises to be?
As part of The Drum’s Metaverse Deep Dive, we explore the audiences at risk of being left behind in this new frontier, asking: what does the industry need to do to ensure the metaverse is open to all?
To build an inclusive metaverse, a whole ecosystem of companies and parties is needed, not just a single company. It will require tech giants, software and hardware vendors, policymakers, institutional and technical experts, and more.
Facebook parent company Meta has already stated that the company alone will not be responsible for creating the metaverse, pointing out that it plans to partner with countless creators and developers on its vision of a unified digital and physical world.
There remain concerns, however, that some audiences are not being considered, and that a VR-enabled metaverse through headsets such as Oculus precludes people with physical disabilities from taking part. There are also issues with the hardware that need to be solved for those who experience motion sickness in VR environments.
Craig Beddis is the chief executive officer and co-founder of deep tech startup Hadean. He argues that openness and inclusivity should be at the heart of any metaverse project, and that these attributes should be pushed from its inception.
He points to one of the great attractions of the metaverse, the freedom of choice afforded to people in virtual worlds, saying that it would be highly contradictory if this remains unavailable to some.
“It is vital to point out how this goes beyond just excluding individuals. Corporate ownership of the metaverse is another key challenge that will potentially restrict who the metaverse works for.
“This is where smaller businesses can play a crucial role as they can ensure the metaverse is constructed with as wide an idea base as possible. A monopolized metaverse will result in stale and restricted experiences that are made only for the gain of the one owning it.
“The vision for the metaverse – and all of web3 for that matter – should be decentralized in all its facets, where people everywhere can build and contribute to maximize inclusivity and ensure a rich tapestry of experience.“
As in the real world, there is also an issue of gender bias. Shep Ogden, the co-founder of Offbeat Media, recalls sharing one of his favorite metaverse experiences – a boxing game based on some major film IP – with his partner.
One of the first things he says she noticed was that all of the characters are male, telling him that, because users embody an avatar, it felt even more jarring and likely to put female players off embracing the tech.
“We have seen a push for more equality in representation in video game avatars – in games such as Call of Duty Vanguard, Fortnite etc – and this needs to continue as developers build metaverse experiences,” he says.
“Also, by encouraging web3 standards, players will be able to define their identity themselves rather than relying on a limited range of options determined by the development team.”
Sum Wong, on the other hand, is confident that inclusivity will be addressed as more investors find opportunities in the metaverse and more players join the game to develop the solution, helping the technology to become more mature.
The chief executive of EventX, a virtual event platform in Asia, notes that Meta’s Voice SDK uses voice recognition technology for inputs, which for now is in VR and is expected to extend to the metaverse. Another technology that would increase accessibility is using eye-tracking for inputs, which Swedish tech company Tobii looks to be doing with VR headset maker Pimax.
“The entry barrier to the metaverse will just become lower than ever and no longer be exclusive,“ argues Wong. “The beauty in this is that there is diversity in thought, but we must not go the route of a single ideal destination.
“Today, accessibility functionalities for the metaverse can be taken from existing technologies, including some being implemented in virtual events such as live captioning, audio descriptions/screen readers, customizable font sizes, voice-activated commands, and more. Even without a hardware device, with the latest technologies, people can also enter the VR world through a smartphone.”
Wong says we are still some ways off a full-sensory metaverse akin to that of the popular movie Avatar, “but for now, using existing technologies to make the metaverse more inclusive is the best way to go“.
In agreement with Wong is Emma Chiu, the global director of Wunderman Thompson who notes that, at present, inclusivity and representation in the metaverse are being illustrated largely through avatars.
Avatar creation tools such as Unreal Engine’s MetaHuman and avatar-generating startup DNABlock, for example, are entering this space with the mission to make the metaverse more diverse and inclusive.
“MetaHuman Creator allows for photorealistic avatar creation that can replicate intricate details of a person’s features, from complexion and wrinkles to broken capillaries and scar,“ says Chiu. “This can all be created within minutes. The metaverse can look as representative and diverse as we want it to.”
Beddis points out that for virtual and augmented reality, there has been some interesting work around improving the experience for the visually impaired. For example, Google Daydream has been developing an audio cue system that uses a laser and enables audio navigation. Likewise, improvements in haptic feedback technology could amplify the sense of touch such that navigation through the metaverse is more possible through this way as well.
He notes recent comments by Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab who flagged the importance of a concerted effort from tech companies to improve accessibility and how the tracking of eye movements can be highly useful for improving VR experiences for users who have more limited movement.
Beddis says pushing companies to prioritize such goals ”will ultimately be better for everyone, as the metaverse will surely flourish more with more people able to access it”.
In the past, people looking to enter the metaverse were faced with the stark reality that the technology came with a hefty price tags.
Pushkar Patange, a VR/AR instructor at Vancouver Film School, tells us however that some initiatives will be accessible from a simple web browser, including Mozilla hubs and several upcoming metaverse social platforms.
“VR headsets such as Oculus Quest 2 have become cheaper and will continue to become more affordable,“ he says. “At least, that is what some of the trends predict, but head-mounted AR is still experimental technology and headsets such as Microsoft Hololens are still costly for consumer usage.
“Most VR metaverse users are gamers, so in-game marketing can be pretty effective for that consumer profile. But from my previous advertising agency experience, I can predict that marketing campaigns will have to be clever; traditional billboards and print media-style passive advertising will not work in this next avatar of digital advertising.
“But engaging content, events and activations will be just as effective. Influencer marketing is just as relevant as it is in social media marketing. Concerts and events in the metaverse, such as Fortnite, draw huge crowds and will continue to do so as more and more people join. Just as an example, Fortnite’s Marshmello concert was seen by more than 10 million people.”
A concern for Michael Heaven, the media director at Offbeat Media, is that emerging countries that lack widespread high-speed internet will not be able to take full advantage of this new technology in the short term due to much of it happening in real-time and consuming a large amount of data.
With this in mind, he says metaverse marketing campaigns should focus on target locations that will likely have 5G, or focus on online communities rather than geolocations. This can be done by tapping into existing communities across gaming, NFTs and crypto, with a new spin and offers.
Heaven says: “We are seeing brands like Nike do this through its RTFKT acquisition. Our goal when we rolled out our take on metaverse with a virtual clubhouse for our employees was to allow our team to explore the possibilities within the metaverse and have the freedom to create experiences that created value.
“Therefore, if some countries have to wait longer for this access, it is clear that they will miss out on the large bulk of the creation of value and its distribution, and instead be relegated to the consumer class of citizens in the metaverse perpetuating existing inequalities.”
The road ahead
There is no question the metaverse is opening up opportunities for those who may feel uncomfortable to present in the real world, or those who may have difficulty traveling.
As virtual worlds grant everyone, regardless of location, a presence and ability to connect with others, there is a positive outlook on what technology can provide us in the future, says Chiu, citing Wunderman Thompson’s Into the Metaverse report that shows ”93% of global consumers believe technology is our future, 88% believe tech can make the world a better place and 78% agree tech can help create a more equitable society”.
However, there needs to be freedom of choice, persistence and scale as people need to be able to do what they want through a seamlessly connected world, without breaking up the experience, cautions Beddis.
“Achieving this requires a few things. For one, we need a metaverse that is open for contribution. If people everywhere can construct metaverse content, we will create something much closer to the diversity of our real world than if only a few companies are allowed to contribute.
“Tools used to do this need to be accessible and where the metaverse is hosted needs to be decentralized. Vitally, we also need a computational model that can sufficiently supply the resources needed for a persistent and scalable world. The metaverse and web3 are far more likely to achieve this through a distributed computing model, where computation can be pushed between the edge and cloud seamlessly.”
While most VR social platforms or metaverse platforms, such as Meta Horizon, Mozilla hubs and Recroom VR, already allow users to create their customized avatars, other platforms need to ensure that their users can choose many different types of avatars.
They can do this by either integrating with many of the most popular avatar SDKs, which will ensure ongoing maintenance and optionality, or by creating their own set of inclusive avatars for their users to choose from, says Ogden.
Patange agrees, adding: “Depending on my orientation, I could be male, female or non-binary. I could even be a dinosaur, a banana or a robot on platforms like VR Chat if I’m in the mood. This gives users an incredible amount of anonymity, freedom and the ability to present themselves as they would like in the real world.”
For more on the exciting new opportunities for marketers in this rapidly evolving space, check out The Drum’s Metaverse hub.