How the metaverse is making experiences more accessible for disabled and impaired people
One goal of the metaverse is to replicate the feeling of real-world connection by creating immersive virtual environments. But it may also make the internet more accessible to the more than one billion people who struggle to interact with digital content each day due to neurodivergence, disability or other impairments.
The metaverse is making digital experiences more accessible to greater numbers of people / Adobe Stock
Meta recently showed the ‘Builder Bot,’ an AI-powered assistant that allows users to create immersive virtual worlds simply by speaking them into existence. In a video demo, Meta chief exec Mark Zuckerberg says to the bot, “Let’s go to the beach,” before the park surrounding him is replaced with a tropical island setting. Like ordering off a catalog, Zuckerberg and a colleague list off various items – a boombox, the infamous hydrofoil – to populate the virtual world.
It may be just another fun feature that makes it easier for anyone to translate an image in their mind into virtual reality (VR), but it’s also an example of how Meta and other major tech players are introducing features that will make the metaverse more accessible than preceding digital experiences – in this case, opening doors and boosting accessibility for those with motor impairments.
Inaccessibility is as old as the internet
Due to lack of accessibility, digital hasn’t always lived up to its promise to connect people. Accessibility is often considered an afterthought. A Deque study shows that 70% of websites in certain industries are inaccessible to the visually impaired, for example.
While Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) have evolved along with the internet itself since their publication in 1999, legal standards have been slow to catch up. It was only in 2019 that the European Accessibility Act came into effect, and the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t reference website accessibility –although US court rulings set precedence of WCAG as the gold standard, following a spate of digital accessibility lawsuits (which increased by 23% in the US in 2020).
But beyond legal compliance, making digital spaces more accessible is simply the right thing to do. Designing with inclusivity in mind doesn’t mean designing one thing for all people, but rather designing a diversity of ways to participate so that everyone has a sense of belonging in the expanding digital world. And with the metaverse in its nascency, tech platforms and their partners have an opportunity to bake accessibility into the user experience (UX) as a default feature, enabling a broader cohort to help shape a new era in digital connection and experience.
Gaming drives innovation in accessibility
One industry that has seen incredible innovation in digital accessibility is gaming, which shares many of the same foundational technologies and design considerations as the metaverse. Of course, accessibility in gaming enables better experiences for the largest audience possible, making it a key business goal in the fight for consumer attention. Playground Games, the developers behind racing game Forza Horizon 5, have done incredible work to develop features including American and British Sign Language support in cinematics, a color blindness mode and controller remapping. Many of these features, according to the developer, were made in partnership with the gaming and disability communities.
But the gaming industry also presents a mindset that is contrary to the way less-immersive digital experiences are designed. Websites acknowledge they aren’t the sole thing occupying your attention; you may have already switched between tabs or checked your phone since you began reading this. But playing a video game or donning a VR headset demands your full time and attention, which can also make any inconvenience feel like a major barrier.
Gaming’s influence gains ground
As the metaverse comes into view, this same mindset to make accessibility a top-of-mind consideration in the design of experiences seems to have stuck. Our team has been able to enjoy a variety of game-like personalization features in Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, such as three-color correction filters that help those with color blindness distinguish between objects in virtual space. Options like this allow me to work far more comfortably in some ways than when we were in a traditional office.
But the metaverse also opens a host of new considerations. In Horizon, an avatar’s height changes depending on if they are sitting and standing, creating an imbalanced experience for those in a wheelchair or a bed. Meta is working on a ‘raise view’ feature that can bring users up to eye level with their peers. Hardware is also being made more accessible to different body types, like the ability to adjust lenses in order to accommodate the distance between a user’s eyes.
Of course, it’s worth noting that design is only one aspect to making digital more accessible. Closing the digital divide remains a crucial need as more and more experiences move online. 27% of New York City households lack broadband internet, and 17% of them don’t have a computer. Racial divides are also a concern: 27% and 26% of Black and Hispanic households (respectively) lack broadband, compared to 21% of white households.
The need to provide access to hardware and connectivity will grow as digital becomes more central to our lives. Popular headsets on the market can cost anywhere between $300 at their most affordable to over $1,500, many of which require a connection to increasingly powerful and expensive PCs. This is yet another barrier to a truly inclusive digital community. Still, we now have the opportunity to make digital experiences more accessible, and thereby to amplify the voices of the billion-plus people who are currently largely being excluded from such experiences – and it’s great to see some major players rise to the challenge.
Iulia Brehuescu is digital accessibility manager at Media.Monks. Sam Haskin, senior vice-president, inclusive marketing practice lead, and Lewis Smithingham, senior vice-president, innovation and creative solutions, Media.Monks, also contributed to this column.